International Olympians: Party crashers

Top 10 non-Canadian athletes to watch

International Olympians: Party CrashersShani Davis, Speed Skating – U.S.
Looking out for number one, always
To hear his competitors tell it, Shani Davis is a fun-loving free spirit; the veritable life of the party. That may well be true, but it’s not a part of his personality the U.S. speed skater shows much interest in sharing with the press, public, or even his teammates. A two-time Olympic medallist, holder of three world records, and a favourite to capture gold in the ­1,000-m and ­1,500-m—and perhaps hit the podium in two other races at the Richmond Oval—the 27-year-old will be a major story at the 2010 Games. The question is whether it will be for how he skates, or how he behaves.

Raised by a single mother on Chicago’s poor South Side, Davis has the kind of inspiring, made-for-TV backstory that should guarantee him a spot on Oprah’s couch, or a Barbara Walters special. But his accomplishments four years ago in Turin, a gold in the ­1,000-m, and silver in the ­1,500-m—the first individual Winter Olympic medals ever won by an African-American—were largely overshadowed by controversy. When Davis declined to race in the team pursuit, choosing to save his strength for the individual events, teammate Chad Hedrick all but accused him of costing the Americans gold.

(The U.S. ended up coming in sixth. Canada won silver.) Their ill-concealed animosity dominated the headlines, and Davis was labelled a selfish traitor—never mind the fact that he had informed U.S. Speed Skating of his decision well in advance of the Games.

It was the kind of bad news story that Davis seems to find himself at the centre of all too often. When he made the short-track speed skating team as an alternate for the Salt Lake City Games in 2002, there were charges from rivals that Davis’s friends Apolo Ohno and Rusty Smith threw a qualifying race to give him a spot on the squad. (The allegations were dismissed after an acrimonious hearing, but Davis left the team after the opening ceremonies and competed in Europe instead.) And this past December, Davis again found himself in the soup when he called faux-talk show host Stephen Colbert—the main sponsor of the U.S. speed skating team—“a jerk” after the comedian took Canada to task for not allowing American skaters easy access to the Richmond Oval. (Davis trained in Calgary for a number of years and remains very close to several members of the Canadian team.)

In the run-up to Vancouver, Davis has been trying to make nice. He and Colbert buried the hatchet with a mock ­500-m race—Davis won by 13 minutes—that went to air in late January. And he and Hedrick have been conspicuously friendly—shaking hands before races, raising each other’s arms on the podium, praising each other in the press—on the World Cup circuit this season.

But Davis’s decision to again skip the team pursuit in Vancouver, and the recent announcement that he will not race the ­10,000-m—robbing NBC of a Davis-seeks-to-equal-Eric-Heiden’s-five-medals-in-one-Games storyline—are already drawing fire. “I would love to enjoy an Olympics,” Davis wistfully told the Chicago Tribune back in October. “One out of my three would be nice.” He might want to start making plans for Sochi 2014. —Jonathon Gatehouse

Bode Miller, Alpine Skiing – U.S.
Will the bad boy behave himself?
Every sport needs a bad boy, and Bode Miller has long filled that role in the world of alpine ski racing. The hulking New Hampshire native has rightfully earned his iconoclast status. In 2003, while courting sponsors, he sped down the slopes with a “For Rent” sign stuck to his helmet. At the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, he skipped the athletes’ village dorms for his personal motorhome. After he failed to reach the podium—despite hype that he’d rack up more medals than any American—Miller was unapologetic, boasting on 60 Minutes that he had partied “at an Olympic level.”

But Miller isn’t just a circus act. He won the FIS Alpine World Cup overall title in 2005 and 2008­, and, with more than 30 wins, has more victories than any American alpine skier in history. The 32-year-old considered retirement last spring, but by the fall had decided that he wasn’t done with the sport just yet. He then qualified for the U.S. Olympic team, reassuring coaches that this time would be free of antics. Miller is currently ranked 14th in the World Cup standings. And though he suffered a sprained ankle while playing volleyball in December, he hasn’t lost any of his trademark confidence, describing Vancouver as “an opportunity to have the best runs of my life.”—Cathy Gulli

Lindsey Vonn, Alpine Skiing – U.S.
The Michael Phelps of the slopes
Western Canada has always been a lucky place for American alpine ski racer Lindsey Vonn. Every time she has competed in Lake Louise, Alta., she’s won—and that’s happened more than half a dozen times since 2004. Now, the 25-year-old is headed to the Winter Games to race in all five downhill and slalom disciplines, and many people are predicting that her lucky streak will continue in British Columbia. Vonn’s optimistic too: “I’ve been working toward this event for the last nine years,” she said last May. “And ever since then I’ve been working on improving every year.”

Vonn’s race results show why this native of Minnesota, a place known more for its prairie landscapes than snowcapped hills, is expected to be the Michael Phelps of the 2010 Olympics. Her first big win was at age 14 in Italy, when she became the only female American to take the prestigious Trofeo Topolino contest. Since then, she’s become one of the most decorated alpine racers in history—Vonn earned back-to-back overall FIS Alpine World Cup titles in 2008 and 2009. Already this season Vonn has triumphed in every downhill event on the World Cup circuit, and she’s ranked number one overall again.

A big part of Vonn’s success lies in her toughness. Last February she had thumb surgery to repair a tendon severed on a broken champagne bottle while celebrating a big win. A few days later, her injured hand was duct-taped to her ski pole, and she competed at the World Cup in France. In early December, while racing in Lake Louise, Vonn’s knee bumped her jaw, causing her to chomp on her tongue. Vonn didn’t miss a beat—she sped through to victory. The post-race shots featured Vonn, smiling, mouth agape as blood gushed down her chin. A few weeks later, she badly bruised her left wrist after a nasty crash on the giant slalom at the World Cup Austria. Vonn strapped on a chic cheetah-print brace and took to the hills again. Her take on the injury: “Hurting my arm is way better than hurting one of my legs.”

he one psychological barrier that may be haunting Vonn? Her past Olympic performances in Salt Lake City in 2002, and then Turin in 2006: both times, she failed to make the podium. She plans on changing that in Vancouver: “One [medal] of any colour will be just fine for me,” she said recently, “and I’m going to work harder than ever to put myself in a position to make that happen.” —Cathy Gulli

The ‘Wang gang’, Curling – China
How China could rock the house
For every Olympic gold medallist, there is another athlete who finishes last. Dead last. But only a select few from that set have what it takes to be lovable losers—competitors who are so embarrassingly awful that you can’t help but cheer. Jamaican bobsledders. Kenyan cross-country skiers. Eddie “the Eagle” Edwards. Eric “the Eel” Moussambani. (For those who don’t remember “the Eel,” he was “the swimmer” from Equatorial Guinea whose first laps in an Olympic-sized pool occurred at the 2000 Summer Olympics.)

Who will be Vancouver’s version of the Eel? Well, believe it or not, it won’t be the Chinese women’s curling team. In a country with 1.3 billion people—including 1.299999999 billion who have absolutely no idea what curling is—four women with brooms have emerged as a bona fide threat to capture gold in 2010. Not bad, considering that six years ago the same team (all former gymnasts) lost a practice match to a group of senior citizens in Alberta. “We are not as skilled as others,” Bingyu Wang, the Chinese skip, said after that loss. “So we must redouble our efforts.”

They did much more than that. Funded in full by the Communist state—and led by a Canadian coach, Quebecer Dan Rafael—the so-called “Wang Gang” (Wang, Qingshuang Yue, Yin Liu and Yan Zhou) soon became famous for 10-hour practices and late-night strategy sessions. When most curlers were at the bar ordering another pint, the Chinese squad was still on the sheet, plotting a curling coup. In 2005, the team quietly qualified for its first world championship. Three years later, they captured their first medal, a silver. And last year—less than a decade after the team was assembled from scratch—China won its first world title in women’s curling.

If the Wang Gang reaches the highest podium in Vancouver, it will be the next closest thing to a victory by the host country. The Chinese team spends up to eight months of the year in Canada, training and playing in bonspiels. “Of course we miss home,” Wang, 25, said recently. “But this is our job. We have a dream of winning gold at the Olympics so more Chinese people not only learn about, but learn to love, curling.”

Which means that the world’s traditional curling powerhouses—Sweden, Switzerland, Denmark and, yes, Canada—should get used to the idea of being lovable losers. —Michael Friscolanti

Ole Einar Bjoerndalen, Biathlon – Norway
Taking a clean shot at history
Just because you’ve never heard of him doesn’t mean he’s not a legend. Norway’s Ole Einar Bjoerndalen—“der Meister” to his fans and opponents—is the undisputed king of the biathlon. He has 91 World Cup victories and counting on his resumé. He owns 14 world titles in the skiing and sharpshooting combo sport, and nine Olympic medals, including five golds. And heading into Vancouver—his fifth Games—the 36-year-old has set his sights on matching, or perhaps even surpassing, the record 12 Winter Olympic podiums that his now-retired countryman Bjorn Daehlie attained in cross-country skiing. Would you want to bet against him?

Bjoerndalen’s greatest Olympic moments to date came in Salt Lake City, where he took gold in all four men’s biathlon events. But in 2006 in Turin, coming off a bout of the flu, he was eclipsed by a three-gold performance by Germany’s Michael Greis, managing “only” two silvers and a bronze.

Perhaps that helps explain why the Norwegian is now almost as well-known on the biathlon circuit for his germaphobia as his competitive skills. An avowed teetotaller, he gargles with cognac every morning to kill bacteria. During the season, he limits contact with his wife, and frequently forgoes crowded family Christmas celebrations in favour of solitary training high in the mountains. And he applies hand sanitizer after every shake. Purell may finally have found its Olympic poster boy.—Jonathon Gatehouse

Armin Zöggeler, Luge – Italy
‘Il cannIbale’ remains the No. 1 threat
When he isn’t barrelling down an icy track at terrifying speeds, Armin Zöggeler works as a police officer. Which is funny, considering that his dominance in luge is borderline criminal. The 36-year-old Italian slider has racked up so many victories and ripped apart so many opponents that he’s earned the nickname “il Cannibale”—“the Cannibal.” (Which is also kinda funny, because he’s a paid pitchman for fruit.) Born in the northern town of Merano, Zöggeler won his first junior title at the age of 14, earned a spot on the Italian national team at 19, and has never looked back. At last count, “the Iceblood Champion” (that’s his other nickname) has captured a record 42 wins on the World Cup luge circuit and a medal in four consecutive Winter Games, including gold in the past two. If he wins a third-straight in Vancouver, he will become just the second luger to ever accomplish that feat. The other, Germany’s legendary Georg Hackl, had his streak snapped in 2002, when Zöggeler won his first gold in Salt Lake City. Another German, Felix Loch, is considered the reigning champ’s closest threat in 2010. But if il Cannibale proves he is still hungry, the young challenger will have to settle for silver. —Michael Friscolanti

Kim Yu-Na, Figure Skating – South Korea
Giving Orser a second chance
Two decades after a crushing defeat at Calgary ’88, Brian Orser is getting a second shot at Olympic gold—this time as coach. He’s a bit thicker, and yes, a bit greyer than the night at the Saddledome. Many consider the “Battle of the Brians” (Boitano and Orser) figure skating’s greatest competition. Just one-tenth of a mark knocked gold from Orser’s hands. Afterwards, he retreated to the dressing room, eyes glazed, and curled up by the showers in his skates, according to gold medallist Boitano. The loss, famously, took him 10 years to get over.

But after all these years, he’s getting a shot at a do-over in Vancouver. There’s just one problem. The brilliant protege he’s pushing to gold at this Olympics is not Canada’s national champion Joannie Rochette, but Kim Yu-Na, a pint-sized phenom skating for South Korea. Kim, who trains in Toronto and, like Orser, enters the Olympics as the reigning world champion, may also take the home ice advantage in Lotusland.

At last year’s Four Continents Cup in Vancouver, Kim shocked media by getting a louder ovation than even Rochette, five-time national champ. Vancouver is a “very international city,” Rochette, who took silver, told Maclean’s at the time. It was “the reality,” no more, no less—though one, Rochette added, she was glad to have the year to prepare for. Kim, who took gold, enters the Games, like her coach before her, the gold medal favourite. —Nancy Macdonald

Dale Begg-Smith, Moguls – Australia
The lost son returns and wants gold
By the standards of sports fandom, Olympic crowds tend to be a civilized lot. But if a smattering of boos rises from the spectators during the freestyle moguls competition at Cypress Bowl next week, there’s a good chance that wayward-but-wealthy homeboy Dale Begg-Smith will be on the receiving end. He’s the closest thing the hometown crowd has to a villain.

Not that he plays the part. The 25-year-old from Vancouver has scarcely uttered a discouraging word about Canada or its ski program since he took leave from both as a teenager, matter-of-factly noting that our sports bureaucrats didn’t like the amount of time he was putting into a start-up Internet company. Australia, which was just planting the seeds of a winter sports team, was more willing to accommodate Begg-Smith’s divided attention. And in 2006, he paid them back in full by winning the gold medal in Turin.

By then, however, Begg-Smith’s Internet start-up had grown into a $40-million enterprise with 100 employees and an office in New York, and it was a matter of time before someone asked how a lad just out of his teens gets rich enough to buy a Lamborghini and flit between international ski destinations. Days after he won in Italy, a Sydney newspaper reported that Begg-Smith had built his fortune by dealing in Internet “spyware,” specialized software that permits the capture of personal data without a computer user’s knowledge. Though Begg-Smith denied involvement in anything more sinister than providing technology that allows companies to monitor the effect of ad campaigns, the revelation cut into his popularity in his adopted country. He has avoided answering questions about it ever since.

No matter, because non-reaction has long been Begg-Smith’s default position, if not his defining trait. When asked once where his primary allegiance lies—Canada or Australia—he answered: “I was happy growing up in Canada, and I was happy to go to Australia.” Good runs, like his second-place finish at last week’s World Cup event in Lake Placid, N.Y., seldom elicit anything more from him than a fist-pump or two, in a sport that quite literally rewards hot-dogging and showboating. And no one should expect a catcall or two from the fans here to faze him, as Begg-Smith’s ability to shut out the distractions has been described by his former coach as “inhuman.” “He never, absolutely ever shows weakness,” his long-time coach Steve Desovich told a reporter following Begg-Smith’s big win in Turin. “He’s absolutely impenetrable.”—Charlie Gillis

Oksana Domnina & Maxim Shabalin, Ice Dancing – Russia
Will the judges be offended?
Vancouver’s blackface moment will arrive Feb. 21. That’s when reigning ice dancing world champs Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin of Russia take the ice at the Pacific National Exhibition to perform their now-infamous Aborigine-inspired dance routine. Last month in Estonia, the duo donned dark-skinned bodysuits, loincloths and “tribal” markings for a 2½ minute dance that felt more like a minstrel show. The number, which saw them stomp their skates to a musical mash-up of chanting and didgeridoos, was roundly trounced as distasteful, offensive and cringe-inducing. The skate world, however—which has come to expect awful and inappropriate costumes from the Russians—barely blinked.

Believe it or not, figure skating has actually entered a newly outlandish phase, with lilac vinyl jumpsuits, sheer tops, off-the-shoulder necklines, corsets, tassels, feathers and fur now all the rage, explains one commentator. “And then,” he adds, “there are the women.” Most blame the Russians, famously fond of fluttery, scanty, studded unitards. (Their ice dancers were also the first to try shredding their uniforms—a change that has inspired yet more tatter and fringe in a sport hardly suffering from a deficit of rips and ruffles.)

Domnina and Shabalin—who, according to media reports, appeared doe-eyed and genuinely astonished by the uproar they ignited at the European Championships—have said their wardrobes will not change ahead of the Games. If nothing else, give ’em the gold for godawful. —Nancy Macdonald

Gregor Schlierenzauer, Ski Jumping – Austria
Austria’s high-flying eagle
How do you become a heartthrob in ski jumping? Lanky good looks, a touch of hipsterism and a $725,000 tour bus for you and your teammates is a good start. Add a sideline in abstract photography and 31 World Cup victories and you have Gregor Schlierenzauer, a 20-year-old Austrian who has supplanted the alpine skiing legend Hermann Maier as his country’s hottest Olympic commodity. Not long ago, Schlierenzauer was best known as the nephew of Markus Prock, a three-time Olympic luge medallist who now serves as Schlierenzauer’s manager. That changed in 2008-09, when the high-flier won a record 13 events to claim the World Cup title, plus two medals at the world championship in Liberec, Czech Republic.

But Schlierenzauer will be in tough at Whistler, as he currently ranks second in World Cup standings to his Swiss rival Simon Ammann, while his countryman Thomas Morgenstern runs a distant third. With all that competition, perhaps the slogan painted on the side of the Austrians’ gussied-up bus best sums up the event’s potential entertainment value: “Die adler kommen,” or in English, “The eagles are coming.”­—Charlie Gillis