10 stories to watch for at the Olympics

NOT LONG ago, when people thought about the Salt Lake City Olympics, the first thing that came to mind was the corrupt practices that won the city the Games.

Then Sept. 11 hit, and security became the top story. These are, after all, the first Olympics to be held in a nation at war.

But whatever happens at the Games, one thing is certain: This Olympics will enter the history books - for its athletics.

Here are 10 stories to watch for during the next two weeks.

• Home-court advantage. US athletes could win more medals than at any previous Winter Olympics. (The current record is 13.) Judging by the pre-Olympic season, the US could easily earn 20 medals or more. This is in part because there are more events: 38 in 1980 versus 78 now.

• A possible four-time gold medalist. German lugist Georg Hackl has won the singles event in the past three Olympics and has performed well in the pre-Olympic season. No athlete in any sport in the history of the Winter Olympics has won the same individual event four times.

• Canada to oust Russia in pairs skating? The longest national winning streak in any Winter Olympics event belongs to Russia in pairs figure skating. Beginning in 1964, Russian couples have won 10 straight Olympic titles. Now there finally may be a changing of the guard. Jamie Sale and David Pelletier of Canada won the 2001 World Figure Skating Championships, scoring a narrow victory over Russians Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze.

• Battle royale in women's skating. Cut away the hype from the highly publicized matchup between Michelle Kwan of the US and Irina Slutskaya of Russia, and it still promises to be a great duel. Both skaters are world champions, and on any given day either could win the gold medal. But also keep your eyes on Americans Sarah Hughes and Sasha Cohen or European champion Maria Butyrskaya of Russia.

• Russian skating champs duking it out. Evgeny Plushenko defeated Alexei Yagudin in September and again in December, but otherwise the two have studiously avoided competing against one another. It is anyone's guess who will prevail in Salt Lake City.

• Pro hockey players ready. Members of the National Hockey League first competed at the Olympics in 1998. The Czech Republic scored an emotional upset victory, while the favored Canadians and Americans both finished out of the medals. Look for the North Americans to live up to expectations this time around, but also watch out for the Russians, who have earned medals in 11 of the past 12 Olympics.

• North American women to rule in hockey. The teams from the US and Canada are miles ahead of the rest of the world. Even the Canadians will have a hard time fighting for the gold - the US won 31 straight games in the pre-Olympic season, including eight over Canada.

• A Pole bursts onto ski-jumping scene. This event has traditionally been the domain of five countries: Finland, Norway, Germany, Austria, and Japan. Last year, out of the blue emerged Adam Malysz of Poland. His overwhelming mastery made him the obvious favorite to win both the normal hill and large hill events at the Olympics.

But all that changed just five weeks ago when German Sven Hannawald, in an unprecedented feat, won all four stages of the prestigious Four Hills tournament in Germany and Austria.

• Magdalena who? The low-profile biathlon, part of the Olympic program since 1960, combines cross-country skiing with shooting. No biathlete has ever won more than two gold medals at one Olympics.

Sweden's Magdalena Forsberg is the favorite in all three women's individual events. Obscure as her sport may be, Forsberg dominates it in a way that would make her the envy of athletes in any other sport - if they knew who she was.

• Oldest female Olympian. Anne Abernathy, a lugist from the US Virgin Islands, has zero chance of winning a medal. But on Feb. 12, Abernathy will break a 66-year-old Olympic record. At age 48, she will become the oldest woman to compete in the Winter Olympics.

No matter how carefully one tries to predict the big stories at the Salt Lake Games, one thing is certain: Drama will develop, heroes will emerge.

Don't forget 1980. When the Lake Placid Games began, no one paid attention to the scrappy US hockey team. Yet their victory stands as the most memorable athletic achievement in US Winter Olympics history.

• David Wallechinsky is a historian of the Olympics and author of 'The Book of Lists' and 'The Complete Book of the Winter Olympics' (Overlook).

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