Countdown to the Winter Olympics: Turin stage set for jump into immortality

Hermann Maier's eagerly anticipated downhill battle with Bode Miller should set the tone for the XX Games

As Turin prepares itself for tomorrow's opening of the XX Winter Olympic Games, the president of the International Olympic Committee, Jacques Rogge, has predicted this week that they will be - wait for it - "wonderful".

No surprise there, then, even though the Italian hosts have had urgent issues to deal with relating both to the budget and the transportation system that will ferry spectators from the city to the surrounding Alpine courses.

But the historical precedent suggests that, even if the economics do flip over like a runaway bobsleigh, and even if spectators have to endure hours of delays on the snowy approaches to the competition sites, these Games are likely to provide the Olympic movement with another clutch of wintry memories to warm the collective heart.

While Britain's team travel to Turin, as per normal, more in hope than expectation, with no more than an average cluster of possible medallists, others are making for Piedmont confident of creating another snow flurry of attention.

This Sunday's men's downhill skiing event, for example, which is to the Winter Olympics what the 1500 metres is to its summer equivalent, will gather several of those performers whose deeds have already secured them a place in Games history.

Despite reportedly suffering from flu, Austria's Hermann Maier, whose huge frame and unflinching commitment have earned him the nickname of " Herminator", will be seeking to gain the downhill gold which so spectacularly eluded him at the 1998 Games in Nagano, when his spectacular, catapulting fall briefly raised fears for his life, never mind his Olympic standing. The former bricklayer showed what he was made of in Japan when he got off his bed of pain and won gold in both the super-G and the giant slalom, but even Maier was unable to shrug off the circumstance that forced him to miss the 2002 Games ­ a motorbike accident that almost cost him a leg.

Flu permitting, however, he is back at the age of 33 to try to reclaim his territory. That, however, will mean defeating his Austrian team-mate Fritz Strobl, who made the most of his absence in Salt Lake to take the 2002 downhill gold. It will also mean overcoming the unconventional American Bode Miller, last year's World Cup winner in the downhill, who is extricating himself from bother with his federation after expounding on the life-changing experience of skiing while being "wasted".

Miller, who grew up in an isolated log cabin and travels around the World Cup circuit in a beat-up old camper van, is unlikely to pursue a diplomatic career once he decides to hang up his skis.

Sunday's big match-up will be but the first of a series of set-piece occasions guaranteed to stir sport to its depths. Michelle Kwan, controversially chosen for the US figure skating team even though she missed the trials, will seek to earn an Olympic title to set alongside her world titles at the third time of asking, even though the new scoring system, thought to reward technique over artistry, will not favour her.

Joe Sakic, who helped Colorado Avalanche to the Stanley Cup in 1996 and 2001, will be seeking another double as he leads a Canadian team which defends its ice hockey title against strong expected opposition from the United States.

Apolo Anton Ohno ­ crazy name, crazy guy ­ is intending to reproduce his gold-medal winning performance from Salt Lake, where he won the 1500m short-track speed skating title.

While the set pieces are likely to deliver, the joy of these Games in previous years has been the thrill of the unexpected. At the Winter Olympics, it seems, you can guarantee the unguaranteeable.

Ohno should know, as well as anyone, about that. Four years ago he was challenging for a second gold in the 1,000m event when a collision on the final bend wiped out all three leading skaters, allowing the last-placed Andrew Bradbury, who had only reached the final through a disqualification, to glide over the line with a mixture of bemusement and embarrassment to claim Australia's first winter Olympic gold.

Four years earlier, shockwaves reverberated around the Nagano Olympics when it emerged that Canada's Ross Rebagliati, the first gold medallist in the newly instituted Olympic snowboarding event, had had traces of marijuana discovered in his sample. Given snowboarding's rebellious reputation, the shock was that the authorities should be even faintly surprised.

In an aftermath that was more gripping than the parallel giant slalom event itself, Rebagliati claimed he had not indulged in marijuana for 10 months, but had become contaminated after attending a farewell party with his friends in Whistler, Colorado, on the eve of the Games. In an intriguing variation on the Bill Clinton defence, he claimed he had inhaled, but had not smoked.

The Japanese authorities, whose hard-line attitude to marijuana is well known to Paul McCartney among others, saw fit to detain the young snowboarder all day in a police station for questioning. The situation was eventually resolved when a loophole was discovered in the IOC rules, which described marijuana as a "restricted" rather than "prohibited" substance. The international skiing authority then clarified the position, saying that testing for marijuana was relevant only in "fear-related" disciplines such as ski-jumping. Yeah, whatever, never mind... Rebagliati kept his gold.

If the Rebagliati incident was a farce, the events preceding the 1994 Winter Olympic women's figure skating competition in Lillehammer were a full-blown drama. The Olympic preparation of the US No 1, Nancy Kerrigan, who gave a convincing impression of Snow White both on and off the ice, had been improbably undermined by a mystery man who hit her on the knee with a hammer after she had been practising. The man turned out to have been sent by Jeff Gillooly, the erstwhile boyfriend of the US No 2 skater, Tonya Harding.

The details of the attack soon became common knowledge, but Harding obliged the US authorities to pick her for the Olympics after threatening them with legal action. Once there, the world sat back to savour the collision of Good v Evil.

In the event, Harding ­ having spent a week batting away " inappropriate" press questions, blew a mental gasket and produced a disastrous performance in the opening short programme which effectively ended her medal contention. Kerrigan, meanwhile, drew strength from the crowd and thrived, although she had to settle for silver behind the Ukrainian waif Oksana Baiul. All that ­ and Torvill and Dean were still due to skate on their Olympic return...

Japan's ski jumper Masahiko Harada had returned from Lillehammer in despair after his poor effort in the final of the large hill team event had dropped Japan down from the gold medal position to silver behind Germany. Harada, the team leader, sank to the snow in dismay.

Four years later, on home territory in the Japanese Alps, Harada restored his status with a massive jump in the final round of the team event which effectively saw Japan to the gold once the final jumper, Kazuyoshi Funaki, the individual champion on the large hill, had succeeded where Harada had failed at the Lillehammer Games. Tears flowed in abundance as a nation rejoiced.

Startling stories abound from the Winter Games, and the latest version getting properly under way on Saturday offers similarly rich potential. Another short-track débâcle? A home skier striking gold? A Brit gaining a medal? Wait and see.

Golden shot? Britons with a chance in Turin

NICOLA MINICHIELLO AND JACKIE DAVIES (Women's two-man bobsleigh)

Britain's first World Championship medallists in almost 40 years when they took silver in Calgary last winter, missing gold by 0.02sec. Steered by Minichiello, a former heptathlete once ranked third behind Denise Lewis, they have struggled with illness this season but they do say that class is permanent.

(Heats 20 Feb; final 21 Feb, at Cesana)

MEN'S CURLING TEAM

The pre-publicity for the Salt Lake City Games of 2002 ­ where Rhona Martin and Co so famously struck gold ­ mainly involved Britain's men, who disappointed. This time the men, skipped by Lockerbie beef farmer, David Murdoch, are ranked in the top three and could deliver more than stones.

(13-24 Feb, at Pinerolo Palaghiaccio)

KRISTAN BROMLEY (Men's skeleton)

The 32-year-old is nicknamed "Dr Ice" because of his cerebral attitude to the relatively new event involving plunging down a mountain headfirst and face down on a tea tray. Finished second in a recent World Cup event and could emulate Alex Coomber's bronze of four years ago.

(Heats and final 17 Feb, at Cesana Pariol)

ZOE GILLINGS (Snowboarder Cross)

In snowboarding's new Olympic event ­ a kind of mass downhill scramble involving obstacles ­ Gillings has already made a mark, finishing fourth in last year's World Cup. After a slow recovery from illness and a broken foot, the 20-year-old from the Isle of Man might manage a flourish.

(Heats and final 17 Feb, at Bardonecchia)

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