The official website of the 2006 Torino Winter Games boasts that Torino's opening and closing ceremonies "will alternate moments of visual awesomeness with massive choreographies that will combine sumptuous costumes, futuristic apparel structures, rhetoric and irony, as well as fire and ice." Wow. And if it's one thing that the average winter sports fan loves it's "visual awesomeness." Furthermore, the Torino organizers recently announced that fashion designer and famous Italian Giorgio Armani will "dress up" the Italian flag that will be carried into the stadium.
But after the opening ceremonies are over, the athletes will get down to business. The Americans will find it nearly impossible to beat or even match their medal totals from Salt Lake City in 2002 where they won a record 34 Winter Games medals, more than double their previous high.
The U.S. will be hyper-competitive as always and has a chance for winning some serious hardware in one of the marquee events on the Winter Olympic schedule. Though usually dominated by the European nations, most notably Austria, the U.S. Alpine Skiing team should be major podium players in Sestriere, the Olympic venue for racing in the Italian Alps. On the men's team, the versatile Bode Miller, who took two silvers at Salt Lake City, has improved dramatically, and has a strong chance to win gold in any event. In 2005, the New Hampshire-bred Miller became the first American overall winner on skiing's World Cup circuit in 22 years. Miller most recently made headlines with some controversial comments in a 60 Minutes interview about having skied while under the influence of alcohol. A few days later Miller accused superstars Barry Bonds and Lance Armstrong of steroid use in an interview published in Rolling Stone.
Another American medal favorite on the slopes is speed freak Daron Rahlves, who has the ability to claim gold in the men's downhill as well and has been doing the best skiing of his career this World Cup season. But both of them may have to get past the sport's most dominant presence during the last decade. Hermann Maier should be back on the Austrian team and will be looking for his first gold medal victory in eight years. Maier missed out on Salt Lake City in the wake of a life-threatening motorcycle accident. Despite almost losing his leg, "The Beast" is back and is a force to be reckoned with at Torino.
On the women's team, American Lindsey Kildow could be playing Picabo this winter. As in Picabo Street, the U.S. last women's gold-medal winning skier. But Kildow, who won her first World Cup race in 2005, will be looking to make her own legend. At just 21 years old, the big and strong Minnesota native should be a fixture on the U.S. team for years to come.
Former X-Games champion and extreme sports pioneer Shaun Palmer made a run at the U.S. Snowboarding team in an attempt to medal in the newly added snowboarding event of snowboardcross (a pack-start downhill sprint), the same event he dominated for years in the late 1990s. At 37 years old and battling past trouble with drugs and alcohol, Palmer was a tremendous long shot, and a torn Achilles tendon suffered in a World Cup race in January derailed his inspirational comeback attempt. Without Palmer there, the Shaun to watch in Torino is redheaded mop-top Shaun White, a.k.a The Flying Tomato. The 19-year-old extreme sports demigod has proved he can compete on the concrete as well as the snow. White is also a world-class skateboarder and became the first athlete to compete in both the Summer and Winter X-Games. Snowboarding is still his strong suit as he proved this season by sweeping all five U.S. Grand Prix halfpipe events and crushing the competition in the superpipe at the 2006 Winter X-Games. You might have already seen one of his Pepsi commercials. If he takes gold in Torino, expect to see a lot more of Shaun White.
Another marquee sport at the Winter Games is figure skating. The United States, a perennial power, will be looking for five-time World Champion Michelle Kwan to come back from a hip injury and capture her first Olympic gold. Although seemingly on the Olympic scene forever, Kwan is just 25 years old. This is more than likely her last shot. Her stiffest competition will be defending world champion and fellow "old lady" Irina Slutskaya of Russia and fellow American Sasha Cohen, who will benefit from the new judging system put in place after the debacle at Salt Lake City. (See also "Skate Gate.")
One person Kwan will not have to worry about is Japan's Mao Asada. The young dynamic skater missed the age cutoff by three months and is not eligible to bring her aerial show to Torino. But remember that name for Vancouver in 2010.
On the men's side, the gold medal is Yevgeny Plushenko's to lose. The Russian phenom has dominated the sport in recent years and is expected to run away with his first Olympic gold medal. Evan Lysacek and Johnny Weir are the top American threats for a medal.
In pairs skating, Russia will attempt to win their 12th consecutive Olympic gold medal. To say they dominated the event is an understatement, taking every gold since 1964, including the disputed gold they shared with the Canadians in 2002.
It will take a near-miracle on ice from the U.S. men's hockey team to medal. A mix of aging veterans and young unproven players, the United States is not expected to make a serious run. The Canadians, who beat the United States in the gold medal game four years ago, are as strong as ever and will be a gold-medal favorite.
The women's team is a different story, however, and should be there in the gold medal once again, hoping to reverse their fate from Salt Lake City where, like the men's team, they were forced to settle for silver by Canada.