For the first time ever, an American enters the winter Olympics as the competition's potentially dominant figure. The reigning world speed skating champion at every distance, Eric Heiden could emerge as the Mark Spitz of the games, regularly mounting the victory stand to receive medals in races from 500 to 10,000 meters.
But while his performance may stand as a diadem of athletic achievement, it certainly won't eclipse glittering efforts by others present. Beth Heiden, in fact, could collect nearly as much hardware as her brother in the women's races. Sweden's Ingemar Stenmark, Liechtenstein's Hanni Wenzel, and Austria's Annemarie Moser-Proell are among the chief Alpine skiing contenders. And in the glamorous figure skating competition, lots of names surface in pre-Olympic talk -- Linda Fratianne, Robin Cousins, Charles Tickner, Irina Rodnina, and Alexander Zaitsev.
Whether these established stars will shine more brightly in the Olympic showcase or give way to lesser-knowns remains to be seen.Looking too far ahead would be foolhardy, since the chemistry of an Olympics can work in strange and wonderful ways on all manner of athletes.
Having said that, here's a brief rundown of the overall prospects in each event.
FIGURE SKATING. The most sought-after tickets to the XIIIth Olympics are surely those for this sport, which captures the public's fancy much as gymnastics does during the summer games. A truly classic confrontation shapes up in the pairs competition, where the spectacular US duo of Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner, the reigning world champions, meet the Soviet husband-wife team of Zaitsev and Rodnina, the '76 Olympic champions, who have returned to ice after starting a family. Britain's Cousins and East Germany's Jan Hoffmann, the defending silver and bronze medalists, will be vying for the gold in the men's singles. Making it a four-way battle will be the Soviet world champion, Vladimir Kovalev, and Tickner, an American who holds the '78 world title. On paper, the women's singles looks like a duel between East Germany's Anett Poetzsch and the American Fratianne, whose recent shakiness in securing a fourth US crown leaves some doubt about her ability to succeed Dorothy Hamill in the Olympic limelight. Just as in pairs, the Soviets are perennially strong in ice dancing, and probably will rumba off with the medals in this remaining discipline.
ALPINE SKIING. No one is expected to sweep the slalom, giant slalom, and downhill the way Jean-Claude Killy did in 1968, but the possibility of double winners is good. Moser-Proell, a six-time World Cup champion with iron-willed determination, intends to make up for her absence at Innsbruck by winning at least one gold medal. Providing a stiff challenge will be Liechtenstein's Wenzel, the current leader in the World Cup standings. Also expected to make her presence felt is Switzerland's Marie-Therese Nadig, the teen-age sensation of the '72 Sapporo games but a disappointment in '76. When the men take to the slopes, Stenmark of Sweden will be the favorite in the slaloms, while in the downhill the medal race is wide open. US slalom hope Phil Mahre has the talent to finish high, yet there's some question about how completely he has recovered from a leg injury.
NORDIC SKIING. The loneliness of the long-distance skier is more to the point these days, a fact evidenced by the virtually anonymous stars in the grueling cross-country events. Traditionally the Scandinavians and Russians have excelled here, and they should continue. An American, Bill Koch, broke up the monopoly with a silver medal at Innsbruck, and now he and Allison Owen-Spencer are given some hope of cracking the Old Guard again. The United States may also surprise some people by placing in the ski jumping, where Jim Denney could become only the second-ever medal winner for his country. Perhaps the best jumpers, though, are the East Germans, who also boast the Olympics' two-time champion in the Nordic combined (cross country and jumping).
SPEED SKATING. This will be an American show, with the Heidens possibly skating away with more Olympic gold than any US winter team has ever garnered. Because of the team's depth, the United States could even grab some of the other honors not swept up by the Soviet Union, East Germany, and Norway.
BOBSLED. Entering the Olympics, Switzerland and the two Germanys have been picked to repeat their strong showing of four years ago. West Germany's chances , however, recently received a serious blow when champion driver Stefan Gaisreiter crashed and was injured in Switzerland. Noteworthy is the fact that Mt. Van Hoevenberg's run is so dangerous that some teams have refused to train on it. The race, therefore, may not go to just the swiftest, but to the swiftest and safest sled.
LUGE. This event is even more the exclusive province of the Germanys than bobsledding. During the '70s, the East Germans collected an incredible 13 medals in this rather obscure sport, which finds its competitors flashing by on tiny sleds feet first.
HOCKEY. The Soviets are the overwhelming favorites. A measure of their strength came at the 1979 world championships, when they crushed the runner-up Czechs by the combined score of 17-2 in two games. The US has an outside chance for a medal if it can get by the Swedes in the opening round. Canada, meanwhile , has put together its first Olympic team since 1968, this after sitting out the competition in '72 and '76 in protest against the professionalism of other teams.
BIATHLON. Russia, Norway, Sweden, and Finland usually excel in this combination of cross-country skiing and target shooting. These nations no doubt will field strong teams, but the East Germans appear ready to step in with a potentially dominant contingent. By winning five of six events at the '79 world championships, they staked their claim to the favorite's role here.