Winter Olympics 2014: A virgin, a vacuum cleaner salesman and bouncing bricklayers... the Games will feature all sorts of remarkable competitors


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The Independent Online

Alpine skiing

9-22 Feb at Rhosa Khutor Alpine Centre

What is it? Ten events including the Olympics' blue riband, the men's downhill, which starts the Games with a bang on Sunday at 7am UK time. Men and women race in the downhill, Super-G, slalom, giant slalom and combined (one slalom, one downhill).

What do I need to know? Pretty straightforward: downhillers have one run, the quickest wins. There are two runs in slalom, with the lowest time winning. Super-G is a halfway house between downhill and slalom.

Tell me something I don't know These are a tough breed. In 1998 Hermann Maier, a former bricklayer, crashed in the downhill at 130kph, landed on his head, burst through safety nets and fell down a cliff. Two days later he won Super-G gold.

GB chances No chance, although Chemmy Alcott is in her fourth Games.

One to watch Ted Ligety (US). Three golds at last year's World Championship.


8-22 Feb at Laura Centre

What is it? Cross-country skiing and shooting combined. There are 11 events, five for men and women and one combined – the mixed relay is making its debut. There are races of between six and 20km, with competitors stopping two or four times to shoot at targets 50m away.

What do I need to know? If athletes miss the target, they do a lap of a 150m "forfeit" circuit before rejoining the race.

Tell me something I don't know Ole Einar Bjorndalen, aiming for a record-equalling 12th Winter medal, puts his success down to his "mental coach", a former vacuum cleaner salesman. They first met when he convinced Bjorndalen to buy one.

GB chances Soldiers Lee Jackson and Amanda Lightfoot are seeking a top 30 finish.

One to watch Norway's Emil Hegle Svendsen won four golds at the 2013 World Championships.


16-23 Feb at Sliding Centre Sanki

What is it? Three events: the men's two-man and four-man and women's two-man. Each team has four runs with the lowest overall time winning.

What do I need to know? Bobs reach 95mph as they career down the 1500m course. Tracks vary significantly; Sochi is not known for speed.

Tell me something I don't know Many crew members have a background in sprinting – Lauryn Williams was in the US gold medal-winning 100m relay team in London.

GB chances Royal Marine John Jackson and GB1 are medal contenders.

One to watch Lolo Jones, the former sprinter controversially chosen amid claims that NBC, in the absence of Lindsey Vonn, needed another idol. Jones is a star in the US: ahead of London 2012 she attracted huge attention after declaring she was a virgin.

Cross-country skiing

8-23 Feb at Laura Centre

What is it? The oldest type of skiing. A dozen golds to be won as athletes compete over distances from 1500m to 50km in two styles, classical – skis parallel – and freestyle – skis in a V-shape.

What do I need to know? The toughest event. Andrew Musgrave, the leading Briton, describes the utter exhaustion at the finish line after completing a sprint – flat out for 1500m with just the toe end of the boot clipped into the ski.

Tell me something I don't know Bjorn Daehlie is the most decorated Winter Olympian with eight gold and four silver medals.

GB chances Musgrave has a slim chance.

One to watch Norway's Marit Bjorgen won three golds in Vancouver and competes in six events.


10-21 Feb at Ice Globe Curling Centre

What is it? Twelve years ago, everyone knew the rules as Rhona Martin's "housewives on ice" won a dramatic gold in Salt Lake City. There are 10 ends per match with teams scoring a point for each stone closest to the scoring circle at the completion of each end. Ten nations compete in a round-robin format with the top four going into the semi-finals.

Women’s curling skip Eve Muirhead (PA)

What do I need to know? Teams of four. The key figure is the skip, who dictates tactics and sends down the final stone at each end. Martin won gold with her last stone – the stone of destiny.

Tell me something I don't know After getting home Martin received a letter in which the correspondent said she got so excited when Britain won that she fell off her sofa, landed on top of her cat and killed it.

GB chances Eve Muirhead is the world champion and David Murdoch won world bronze last year.

One to watch Muirhead struggled in Vancouver, bursting into tears after being knocked out. But she has matured into an icy – appropriately enough – competitor.

Figure skating

6-22 Feb at Iceberg Skating Palace

What is it? The new team event makes it five golds – men's, women's, pairs, ice dance and team. Each individual or pair does two routines marked by a panel of nine judges on choreography and technical proficiency.

What do I need to know? In ice dance the women have to wear a skirt and the men trousers.

Tell me something I don't know It featured at two Summer Olympics before becoming part of the inaugural Winter Games in 1924.

GB chances Nick Buckland and Penny Coomes are targeting 2018 but won bronze at last month's Europeans.

One to watch Maxim Trankov and Tatyana Volosozhar are among Russia's best hopes of gold. Volosozhar was in Ukraine's team in 2010.

Freestyle skiing

6-21 Feb at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park

What is it? Half-pipe and slopestyle make their debuts. The other events are moguls, aerials and ski cross. Four of the five are judged on jumps and tricks while ski cross is a race, a harum-scarum dash down a bumpy course. In half-pipe skiers use the banks down a U-shaped course – it literally resembles a pipe cut in half. In slopestyle the skiers head down a 565m course doing tricks over jumps and rails.

British freestyle skier James Woods during practice (Getty)

What do I need to know? Forget much of the detail, just enjoy the spectacle.

Tell me something I don't know Tony Dawson won mogul bronze for the US in 2006. He was adopted by a US couple from an orphanage after losing his parents in a market in South Korea. Friends of his real father saw him on TV and were struck by the similarity. A year later, father and son were reunited.

GB chances Good. Britain has never won a medal on snow; James Woods, Katie Summerhayes and Rowan Cheshire have a chance.

One to watch Hannah Kearney – the US mogul skier won in 2010 and is reigning world champion.

Ice hockey

8-23 Feb at Bolshoi Ice Dome and Shayba Arena

What is it? The one the Russians want. In the men's event 12 teams are split into three pools to produce a quarter-final line-up. The women's has eight teams, with the US and the Canadians expected to dominate.

What do I need to know? The men's final is the last event – the script is written for a grand Russian finale…

Tell me something I don't know Russia has not won gold since 1992 when the "Unified" team triumphed in a last hurrah for the disintegrating Soviet Union.

GB chances Failed to qualify.

One to watch Alexander Ovechkin, the Russian captain who plays for Washington Capitals.


8-13 Feb at Sliding Centre Sanki

What is it? Athletes slide feet first. Four golds on offer via men's, two-man, women's and team relay. One of the most dangerous sports in the Games – in Vancouver Georgia's Nodar Kumaritashvili was killed in practice.

What do I need to know? This is tobogganing, albeit extreme tobogganing at speeds of 80mph.

Tell me something I don't know Austria's Lingers brothers are chasing a third successive gold in the two-man.

GB chances No qualifiers.

One to watch Natalie Geisenberger of Germany has won the last two World Cups.

Nordic combined

12-20 Feb at RusSki Gorki Jumping Centre

What is it? A combination of ski jumping and cross-country. Athletes jump first to earn a head start in the 10km cross-country according to the distance they reach.

What do I need to know? It's the last men-only event in the Games.

Tell me something I don't know Samppa Lajunen won gold for Finland in 2002 – he was better known in his home country for being in a band. Their first hit was about the eating habits of ski jumpers.

GB chances No qualifiers.

One to watch The US-born Frenchman Jason Lamy-Chappuis is attempting to win back-to-back gold.


13-15 Feb at Sliding Centre Sanki

What is it? Britain's go-to event. Athletes propel themselves head first down a 1.5km run. It's fast and dangerous. There are four runs over two days and the lowest overall time wins.

What do I need to know? Racers steer with their upper bodies or toes, exerting pressure on the runners under the sled to make minute alterations.

British skeleton medal hope Shelly Rudman starts a training run (AP)

Tell me something I don't know Britain has won a medal at all five Games in which skeleton has featured, including Amy Williams' gold in Vancouver four years ago.

GB chances Excellent – Lizzy Yarnold is world No 1, Shelley Rudman is the world champion.

One to watch Noelle Pikus-Pace, an American, is the Britons' main rival.

Ski jumping

8-17 Feb at RusSki Gorki Jumping Centre

What is it? Four golds on offer including a first for women.

What do I need to know? It's not just about distance – marks are awarded for style and technique, although usually the longest jumper wins.

Tell me something I don't know The IOC resisted for 16 years before allowing women to jump, claiming there were not enough top-level athletes.

GB chances No qualifiers.

One to watch Sara Takanashi, the 17-year-old from Japan, is favourite to win the first female gold.


6-22 Feb at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park

What is it? Five events for men and women. Slopestyle and half-pipe are judged; parallel slalom, giant slalom and cross are races.

What do I need to know? Slopestyle, like its skiing cousin, makes its debut, as does parallel slalom – two athletes race each other on neighbouring courses.

Tell me something I don't know In 1998 the first-ever snowboard winner, Canada's Ross Rebagliati, tested positive for marijuana but he kept his medal.

GB chances Decent – Billy Morgan, Jenny Jones and Zoe Gillings have podium ambitions.

One to watch Shaun White – the biggest name in the Games – withdrew from slopestyle because he said the course was too dangerous but is still in the half-pipe event.

Speed skating

8-22 Feb at Adler Arena

What is it? A dozen golds to be won over distances from 500m to 10,000m around a 400m oval track.

What do I need to know? Lacks the thrills of short-track because athletes compete in pairs against the clock rather than in an out-and-out race.

Tell me something I don't know The American Eric Heiden swept the board in the 1980 Games, winning all five men's golds.

GB chances No qualifiers.

One to watch Shani Davis, the first black male to win Winter gold, is chasing a third in Sochi.

Speed skater Elise Christie talks to the media (PA)

Short-track speed skating

10-21 Feb at Iceberg Skating Palace

What is it? Fast and frenetic. Four to six racers compete round a tight 111m oval track over distances ranging from 500m to 1500m.

What do I need to know? Athletes must be able to look after themselves – there is plenty of pushing and shoving, and falls are the norm.

Tell me something I don't know Steven Bradbury recovered from a broken neck to reach the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City. His tactic was to skate at the back and wait for the falls. In the final the entire field was wiped out apart from the Australian, who skated through to win a last-man-standing gold.

GB chances Good – Elise Christie was world No 1 at 1,000m last year.

One to watch Victor Ahn, the Korean turned Russian, carries home hopes.