Gold is never a sure thing at the Winter Olympics: For every big-name athlete or team at the Beijing Games, there is someone standing in the way of victory. Many events will be decided by a showdown between two top contenders, or by a star’s battle against something more fearsome.
Here are some of the rivalries to watch over the next two weeks.
Jessie Diggins vs. Natalia Nepryaeva
Diggins supplied what many considered to be the most thrilling American moment at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics when she outraced skiers from Sweden and Norway in the final stretch of the team sprint, earning the United States its first gold medal in cross-country skiing.
Her partner that day, Kikkan Randall, has retired, but Diggins is back at age 30 and could score an individual gold this time around. But the hot skier right now is the Russian Nepryaeva, who took away Diggins’ Tour de Ski title this year and leads the World Cup standings.
Yuzuru Hanyu vs. Nathan Chen
Hanyu, of Japan, is seeking to become the third singles skater to win three consecutive gold medals and the first in nearly a century. He plans to attempt a quadruple axel, the sport’s most difficult jump, and could be the first person to land it in competition if successful.
Chen, the American star, has an advantage in his expertise with other quadruple jumps. But he will need to avoid a disastrous short program, which ruined his medal chances in 2018 and cost him victory this past fall at Skate America.
Chloe Kim vs. Maddie Mastro
In her teenage years, Kim dominated the halfpipe, a run that culminated in a gold medal at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics. Stardom came quickly. But she soon found the sport too cloistered and celebrity too uncomfortable, so she stepped away, pondering retirement. She went to Princeton University and spent 22 months without riding a snowboard. Then she returned and dominated again.
Anything but another gold for Kim would be an upset. But if it’s Mastro who beats her, it will not be a huge one. Mastro, a fellow 21-year-old Californian, has lingered in Kim’s shadow. At the 2021 X Games and World Championships, she finished second to Kim. This could be Mastro’s time to pounce.
Ayumu Hirano vs. Scotty James
The name that is missing here? Shaun White. While White, 35, will compete in his fifth Winter Olympics, looking for his fourth gold medal in the halfpipe, he is no longer the favourite. That mantle belongs firmly to Hirano, 23, a two-time silver medallist who leads a dominant Japanese team (including Hirano’s younger brother, Kaishu) that could sweep the podium.
The biggest wild card is James, of Australia, who has been working on the same game-changing trick as his Japanese rivals: the triple cork. The ones who land it will most likely take home hardware.
Eileen Gu vs. Kelly Sildaru
Get ready to see a lot of Gu. Born and raised in San Francisco but competing for China (her mother’s homeland) in three events, Gu, 18, has captured the imagination of the host country. China has never won more than five gold medals at a Winter Olympics, but Gu is favoured to win three in halfpipe, slopestyle and big air.
The freeskier most likely to disrupt those ambitions is Sildaru, of Estonia, who will turn 20 during the Games. Like Gu, she is the rare athlete to compete in all three disciplines, and she is the rare competitor who has beaten Gu in the past year.
United States vs. Canada
The dominant forces in women’s hockey are expected to play for the gold medal Feb. 17. But their preliminary round matchup Tuesday will offer both teams final tune-ups just before the start of elimination play.
The Americans are looking to repeat as Olympic champions, and their roster includes 13 players from the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang, including forwards Hilary Knight and Kendall Coyne Schofield, as well as goalies Maddie Rooney and Alex Cavallini. Canada posted a 4-2 record against the United States during an exhibition tour before the Beijing Games and will have Marie-Philip Poulin and Rebecca Johnston making their fourth Olympic appearances.
Germany vs. Canada
The teams that took silver and bronze at the 2018 Games will duel Thursday, the second day of the men’s tournament. Canada has assembled a roster that includes former NHL player Eric Staal, while Patrick Hager, Germany’s scoring leader in Pyeongchang in 2018, is expected to compete. But the absence of current NHL players injected some uncertainty into the tournament, in which the Russian team is now favoured for gold.
Suzanne Schulting vs. the Field
Schulting is extending the Dutch dominance of speedskating into short track. At last year’s world championships she won all three individual races (500 meters, 1,000 meters and 1,500 meters), and the Dutch women won the relay.
Arianna Fontana of Italy, Lee Yubin of South Korea and Kristen Santos of the United States are the best bets to deny Schulting repeated trips to the top spot on the podium.
Brittany Bowe vs. Japan’s Best
Bowe, of the United States, is the world-record holder in the 1,000 meters, but a couple of Japanese skaters are hot on her tail.
Bowe won the race at the first two World Cup stops of the season, but victories at the next two belonged to Nao Kodaira and Miho Takagi. Takagi is the best 1,500-meter skater in the world, while Kodaira is ranked third in the 500 meters, meaning Bowe will have to fend off challenges from a sprinter and a longer-distance skater.
Norway vs. the World
Norway tends to win a lot of men’s biathlon events. Johannes Bo has won the last three World Cup titles, and his brother Tarjei and the rest of the team are all threats to win on any given day.
But biathlon can be fickle. A great skier can miss a few shots in the shooting portion, be forced to ski penalty laps and be thrust immediately out of contention.
France might have seemed to be in for a down cycle after five-time Olympic gold medallist Martin Fourcade retired. But Quentin Fillon Maillet has come forward to fill his skis, and Germany, Sweden and Russia are also poised to take advantage of a bad shot or two by Norway.
Jarl Magnus Riiber vs. a COVID test
Nordic combined is a mix of ski jumping and cross-country, and Riiber, of Norway, is particularly great at jumping. “Every team and every athlete in our sport is watching video of him, trying to figure out how and why he’s on another level,” American Jared Shumate told The Associated Press.
Riiber started this season with eight wins in the eight events he entered, and it looked likely that he would be able to exorcise the demons of two disheartening fourth-place finishes in the Pyeongchang Games. But a back injury caused him to miss several events, and the up-and-coming Johannes Lamparter of Austria has been grabbing victories. Now, Riiber’s Olympics could be derailed by a positive coronavirus test, reported the day before the opening ceremony; without two negative tests, he will not be able to compete.
With Marita Kramer of Austria out because of a positive coronavirus test, the women’s competition is suddenly wide open. Katharina Althaus, the defending silver medallist from Germany, and Sara Takanashi, the defending bronze medallist from Japan, are the elder stateswomen at age 25 in this young person’s game. Nika Kriznar, a 21-year-old Slovenian, represents the next wave. She edged Takanashi for the last World Cup title.
After the women’s event, there will be another gold medal opportunity in the new mixed team event.
Martins Dukurs vs. Tomass Dukurs
The Latvian brothers are coached by their father, Dainis Dukurs, a former bobsledder. They are each seeking the medals that have eluded them throughout their otherwise illustrious careers.
Martins Dukurs, 37, is a six-time world champion who won silver medals at the 2010 and 2014 Olympics but is still chasing his first gold. Tomass Dukurs, 40, won a World Cup gold medal in December by holding off Martins at their home track in Sigulda, and is again trying for his first Olympics medal after two fourth-place finishes.
Elana Meyers Taylor vs. Kaillie Humphries
For the first time at an Olympics, these longtime friends and rivals will be competing under the same flag. Humphries, a two-time Gold medallist for Canada in two-woman bobsled, left the country, citing harassment within the sport’s national governing body after the 2018 Winter Olympics. She gained U.S. citizenship this winter.
Meyers Taylor is seeking her first Olympic gold medal, having won two silvers and a bronze. She and Humphries are tied for the most Olympic medals among female bobsledders with three, and they will have an extra opportunity to add to their totals with the debuting monobob competition — provided Meyers Taylor is cleared to compete in time. She tested positive for the coronavirus last week.
Natalie Geisenberger vs. Julia Taubitz
Geisenberger, of Germany, deliberated skipping these Olympics over the treatment of sliding athletes by Chinese officials during training sessions last year. Instead, she is defending her back-to-back gold medals in the women’s singles event. Geisenberger is widely regarded as the best female luger in the sport’s history, and a German athlete has won gold in the event at every Olympics since 1994.
Geisenberger’s most serious competition will probably come from her teammates. The 25-year-old Taubitz is the reigning world champion.
Canada vs. the United States
Canada won the men’s Olympic gold medal in 2006, 2010 and 2014 and was beginning to consider it a birthright. Then cult hero John Shuster and the Americans bounced back from a shaky start to roar to the gold in 2018, leaving Canada behind in fourth.
Sweden or Britain might win the gold medal this time. But no rivalry is more fierce than Canada against the lower 48. (And, yes, Shuster and his team are back representing the United States.)
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