Winter Olympics: Six-pack of contenders and pretenders

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The Independent Online
The British hope: Curling

AFTER five centuries of existence and three appearances as a demonstration sport, curling at last enters the Olympic fold as an official event. Scotland is where the game began and Scotland is where the inaugural men's gold medal could end up. They came third in the 1997 World Championships in Berne and have been selected en bloc. By the end of February we should all be connoisseurs of crampits, hog lines and the art of how a stone should be swept into the house. Expect the most repeated phrase to be something about chess on ice. The Scots, coached by James Dryburgh with his elder brother Dougie as skip, are capable of beating anybody as they showed in Switzerland when they were outstanding in the group matches. The serious competition will come from Sweden, the world champions, Germany and the favourites, Canada.

The artist: Michelle Kwan

SHE is 17 years old and floats across the rink like an angel gliding around heaven. Earlier this month at the US Championships Michelle Kwan, from California, was awarded 15 maximum marks of 6.0, from a possible 18, for artistic presentation and the only debate concerned what flaws the other three judges spotted. Which does not make her a shoo-in. Kwan will be sternly challenged by Tara

Lipinski, a Texan sprite who is all of 4ft 10in and 15 years old. Lipinski may lack Kwan's grace but she came back determinedly after falling in the US short programme and beat Kwan to the world title last year. The rivalry will not capture the attention as Kerrigan-Harding did but the skating will be better. Elvis Stojko of Canada should win the men's title though the American Michael Weiss will stake everything on landing the first quadruple lutz in history.

The African skier: Philip Boit

SINCE taking up the sport two years ago Philip Boit, of Kenya, has reduced his 10km time by an hour. As the winner in Nagano will finish in under 25 minutes it may be realised that the improvement was vital. The Kenyan had not seen snow until he landed in Finland to begin his new career, a move linked both to a theory that since Kenyans can run long distances quickly they should be able to ski them and to the commercial opportunism of a sportswear company who have invested pounds 150,000 in the project. Boit, a 3min 46sec 1,500m runner and nephew of Mike, Olympic 800m bronze medallist in Munich, will garner plaudits for epitomising the spirit of the Games. One day he may, like the Jamaicans in bobsled, compete respectably but this time he will not come close to Bjorn Daehlie, the great Norwegian who is trying to add to his five golds.

The millionaire: Wayne Gretzky

THE ice hockey records that the Canadian does not hold probably do not exist. Wayne Gretzky has scored more goals, made more assists and influenced more matches than any other player. His skill is unparalleled. At 37 "The Great One", now with New York Rangers, is not the force of yore, thanks to a severe back injury five years ago, but he should still grace his inaugural and probably final Olympiad. Professional players from the North American National Hockey League, in the wake of basketball and baseball, are being allowed to compete for the first time. There are 125 of them altogether from nine countries. Although the US, Sweden and the Czech Republic will all threaten, Canada, with Gretzky at centre and the Stanley Cup winning captain, Steve Yzerman, ought to have enough to ensure their seventh gold, but their first for 46 years.

The free spirit: Kirstie Marshall

ALMOST a exactly a year ago Kirstie Marshall became the first Australian to win a winter sports title when she dominated the aerials skiing event. That, too, was in Nagano and the evidence suggests she will gain a repeat victory. She finished seventh in Albertville, sixth in Lillehammer and at 28 is at her peak. Competitors in the discipline have two jumps which are supposed to stress take-off, height, distance, style and landing. A gold for Marshall against opponents brought up with snow would do wonders for the sport. The male freestyler to watch for is the moguls specialist Jean-Luc Brassard, a 25-year-old Quebecois who is both the defending Olympic champion and world champion. Moguls relies on a combination of turns (half the allotted marks), air and speed performed across a surface on which most people would have trouble merely standing.

The old stager: Anne Abernathy

NOBODY has done more to raise the profile of luge - and all because a fellow competitor described the Floridan-born Virgin Islander as Grandma Luge. This does not sit altogether well with Abernathy, who not only thinks it tends to diminish her contribution to the sport but also points out that she is still only 44. This is her fourth Games and she has finished in the top 25 in each of the previous three. She took up the luge at 30 when she saw it on television. Her preparations for the Nagano Games have been fraught to say the least. A hurricane destroyed her house early last year and towards the end of it she broke her wrist. Abernathy will not be in the frame but Susi Erdmann, the German who gave her the sobriquet, will probably win gold while Erdmann's compatriot Georg Hackl is going for his third successive men's title.

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