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Who will be America's sweetheart at the Sochi Games? (+video)

The Olympics offer viewers a story line as much as a sports competition, and every good story needs leading men and women to play their parts. So far, it's not clear who will be the face of the Sochi Games, to Americans.

By , Staff writer

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    US figure skater Gracie Gold could be America’s sweetheart at the Sochi Olympics. But she may find it hard to take home silver or bronze – let alone gold.
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Gracie Gold, it would seem, is NBC's dream come true.

She is an American. She is going to Sochi to compete in women's figure skating, perhaps the biggest event on the Winter Olympics calendar for viewers in the United States. And she is the image of an American sweetheart, each fingernail painstakingly polished, each smile brilliantly bright.

Not to mention the last name.

Recommended: How much do you know about the Winter Olympics?

In America, coverage of the Olympic Games is constructed around just such smiles. Who among the viewing public, after all, has ever luged or spread-eagled off a ski jump? Who tunes in to the World Cup downhill at Hahnenkamm? The Olympics are a story as much as a sports event, and every good story needs leading men and women to play their parts.

Cue video of Gold's life story.

Problem is, Gold almost certainly will not win gold. In fact, she very well might not even win bronze. And therein lies the potential danger of these winter Games for American viewers: US athletes might do well – even topping the medal table – but the sorts of narratives that drive interest could be in short supply.

These could seem to many like the Faceless Games.

Only a month ago, it was clear who the American face of these Games in Russia would be. Lindsey Vonn was an ideal leading lady. Photogenic and phenomenally talented, Vonn was a threat to win medals in multiple events, which meant NBC could unspool her story over multiple nights. Add the story line of a comeback from injury and a gossip-page off-the-slope life (she has been dating Tiger Woods), and Vonn was set to be Sochi's serial soap opera star.

When she reinjured her knee and pulled out of Sochi in January, however, she left a huge void.

The only American figure skaters who seem likely to medal are ice dancers Meryl Davis and Charlie White. A medal for Illinois native Gold is not out of the question, but South Korea's Kim Yu-na and Japan's Mao Asada consistently post much higher scores, and no fewer than a dozen others will be scrapping for bronze. Beyond that, there are names – and some big ones, like Shaun White – but he is perhaps the only one who can carry a narrative over multiple days, as Michael Phelps and Gabby Douglas did in London.

Television ratings have shown that those story lines are central to Americans' interest in the winter Games.

Take the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy. Heading into the Games, there was little question what Americans would be watching: Bode Miller was skiing for five medals, Shani Davis and Chad Hedrick were competing to be kings of the speed-skating track, and Sasha Cohen was ready to emerge from Michelle Kwan's shadow as an ice diva. Then Miller crashed and burned, Davis and Hedrick underperformed while lobbing insults at each other, and Cohen stumbled her way to a silver during one of the most forgettable women's figure skating competitions in recent decades.

Away from the prime-time spotlight, the United States was, in many respects, enjoying historic success, finishing second in the medal table.

"But you couldn't get people to pay attention, because these narratives … were the ones being covered," says David Wallechinsky, coauthor of "The Complete Book of the Olympics."

Turin remains tied as the least-watched winter Games by an American audience since 1992. The most-watched? That would be the 1994 Lillehammer Games in Norway that featured the controversy of figure skaters Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan, the heartache of speed skater Dan Jansen, and the record-setting performances of speed skater Bonnie Blair. [Editor's note: The original misstated Ms. Blair's sport.]

And it's not even close. Some 204 million Americans watched the Lillehammer dramas, compared with 190 million for Vancouver in 2010, which sits at No. 2. No. 3 is Salt Lake City in 2002 at 187 million.

It is always harder for the winter Games to generate as many intriguing story lines as their summer counterpart. The summer Games simply have more events – and the events are much more familiar to American viewers. That makes the narratives particularly important to the winter Games.

"One of the things that has sold sport over the last few decades has been creating a dimension of intimacy between viewers and athletes," says Jeffrey Segrave, a professor at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., who studies the Olympic movement. With the winter Games, he adds, "one of the reasons intimacy is so important is because nobody watches these [sports] except during the Olympics."

The International Olympic Committee has been trying to help NBC, which paid $4.4 billion to broadcast the summer and winter Games through 2020. This year, for example, the Olympics will feature slope-style competitions for snowboard and skiing – essentially a competition on a massive terrain park. It will also add a team figure skating event, which should drive interest in the US.

But losing someone like Vonn will be hard to recover from.

"You take out the narrative of the singular superstar and it weakens the connection to the sport" for many viewers, Professor Segrave says. "They're going to have to create other interesting narratives now, and it's not going to be easy."

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