Sarajevo, Yugoslavia — Every four years the Olympics start out with what is basically a blank canvas. The seemingly indelible achievements of the last set of Games have receded from memory, paving the way for new names and faces to make fresh athletic imprints.
Of course there are always some stars who return looking for another taste of Olympic glory, but very few quench their thirsts. At Lake Placid in 1980, for example, only one champion of an individual discipline retained his or her title from 1976. That was Nordic combined king Ulrich Wehling of East Germany, who retired after becoming the first triple winner of a single skiing event in Olympic history.
Wehling is obviously the exception to the rule, for most champions either retire, turn professional, or lose their winning edge.
Besides easing out the old guard, the four years separating these global competitions encourage the formation of a new order. Thus it is that the apprentice athletes of one Olympics so frequently turn into the master craftsmen of the next.
No one illustrates this point better than Eric Heiden, who went from being a young, unknown member of the 1976 US speed skating team to the winner of all five men's gold medals at Lake Placid.
Among athletes here in Sarajevo who've blossomed into full-fledged stars since 1980 are American figure skater Scott Hamilton, East German speed skater Karin Enke, and Finnish ski jumper Matti Nyka.
Just because they're among the bigger names heading into the competition, however, doesn't necessarily mean they'll wind up mining gold.
The unpredictable is actually the predictable on these occasions. This is especially the case in a one-shot sport like downhill skiing or in circumstances where athletes are battling the elements as well as each other.
Then again, the unforeseen sometimes shatters a dream here or there, such as when Randy Gardner sustained an injury in 1980 that forced the unfortunate last-minute withdrawal of him and partner Tai Babilonia from the pairs skating competition in which they had appeared virtual shoo-ins for a medal.
As for what to look for in this year's events, here's a quick sport-by-sport rundown.
FIGURE SKATING: The gold medals in two of the four disciplines appear to be in the bag. For either Hamilton or the British ice dancing couple of Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean to finish anywhere but first would require a shocking development. Hamilton has been unbeatable the last three years. Torvill and Dean, meanwhile, have become dazzling pioneers in their event. In some cases, they've even gone a bit beyond a strict interpretation of the rules prohibiting certain types of lifts, a point the Soviets could make an issue of here.
The Russians have traditonally dominated the pairs and dancing, but sense they may be losing their grip. This year's pairs competition appears to be a toss-up among Soviet, East German, and Canadian couples.
The women's event is just as wide open, with world champion Rosalynn Sumners of the United States trying to hold off East Germany's Katarina Witt as well as fellow Americans Elaine Zayak and Tiffany Chin.
ALPINE SKIING: With World Cup luminaries and 1980 Olympic champions Ingemar Stenmark and Hanni Wenzel ineligible due to commercial contracts (though Wenzel's status was still not certain heading into this final weekend before the Games), picking favorites is a thankless task. Different winners surface almost every week. As defending World Cup champions and leaders of the strongest-ever US contingent, Phil Mahre and Tamara McKinney obviously possess medal possibilities, as do Phil's twin brother, Steve, and McKinney's teammate Christin Cooper. Switzerland's diminutive 1982 World Cup champion Erika Hess has been around the top of the women's standings all winter, while West Germany's Irene Epple is another top contender. With Stenmark out, the men's slalom and giant slalom events will be contested by a group including the Mahre brothers, the usual strong Swiss and Austrian contingents, and perhaps even Yugoslav aces Jure Franko and Bojan Krizaj, who hope to win their country's first medal in the Winter Games. The downhill is always hard to call, but the Canadians have produced some excellent kamikaze schussers as have the Austrians. Chief among the latter group is crowd favorite and 1976 gold medalist Franz Klammer of Austria, who is squarely in the picture again after missing the '80 Games.
NORDIC SKIING: The Scandanavian countries always pick up several medals in the Nordic disciplines - cross-country, jumping, and Nordic combined. The Soviets grab off some of the racing hardware, and the East Germans tend to flex their muscles in the combined competition. Bill Koch, perhaps the physically strongest Nordic competitor of the lot, will attempt to get the US on the board as he did in '76 by winning a cross-country silver. The Austrians and the Nordic countries generally have a go at it on the 70- and 90-meter jumps.
HOCKEY: The Russians are expected to make amends for what happened at Lake Placid by romping to their fifth gold medal since 1964. Czechoslovakia, Sweden, the defending champion US team, and Canada will probably battle it out for the remaining laurels.
SPEED SKATING: The United States, despite a long winning tradition topped by Heiden's record-breaking show in Lake Placid, appears to be having an off-year this time and may well disappear from the victory stand altogether. East Germany is expected to step to center stage, with the Soviet Union vying for the spotlight.
BOBSLED/LUGE: These events are a high-speed Soap Box Derby, in which having the best designed sled is half the battle. The Russians, therefore, have made themselves instant contenders with a streamlined bobsled. Even so, the East Germans and Swiss have the best track records.
BIATHLON: The two Germanys, Norway, and the Soviet Union are the leaders in this obscure event, which combines cross-country skiing with target shooting.