SOCHI, Russia -- The 22nd Winter Olympics get rolling this weekend. Why should you pay attention? Here are 10 good reasons.
Quite possibly the damndest hockey tournament you ever saw: Defending champion Canada brings Sidney Crosby, as it will. Defending silver medalist the United States brings forbidding goaltenders. Sweden (gold in 2006) expects. Finland (four medals in the last five Games) expects. People call Switzerland a comer. People call Norway a possible comer. Jaromir Jagr plays his fifth Games for the Czech Republic. Some 150 NHL players compete. And atop all of it, atop all this riveting confusion and possibility and prospective drama heading to the Olympics-closing final on Feb. 23, Russia and Mr. Alexander Mikhaylovich Ovechkin face an amount of pressure so steep describing it would require, you know, hyperbole.
The prospect of weirdness: Setting aside any grim possibilities for a moment, this baffling Olympics in this unpredictable place -- wait, they spent $51 billion and they're not ready? -- could spew just about any oddity. Could one of the stray dogs around town factor in somehow? Could the cultural penchant for procrastination -- wait, I think I might fit in here -- spawn some improbable new twist? Could gay-rights demonstrations on medal podiums cause any ruckus? Could Pussy Riot?
The art of cross country skiing and then shooting a gun at a target: Maybe you have never watched biathlon. Maybe you didn't know that the idea of people zipping around on skis while hunting got a mention in 400 B.C. from Virgil, the Roman poet, even though it is not known whether he was credentialed for any ancient Olympic Games or whether his quarters included a shower curtain. Maybe you did not know biathlon has been in the Olympics since Squaw Valley 1960, when Sweden's Klas Lestander won gold. Maybe you didn't know Lestander was a cross-country skier as a junior until an accident in his carpentry work halted that, but that he overcame a 15th-place showing in the cross-country portion of the gold-medal race by hitting all 20 targets in the shooting. Maybe you didn't know that Norwegian Ole Einar Bjoerndalen, still in the mix at 40, has won 11 medals already and needs two to surpass the Winter Olympics' record. Yet now comes a manly man Olympics with biathlon as an emblem sport, what with Vladimir Putin himself fancying it and with Brooklyn Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov lavishing the Russian team in private jets and such in the hopes it will correct the Russian decline in the sport while maybe even inspiring the Nets over .500 -- or, not.
An ultimate ratification of the boldness of Shani Davis' mother: On the South Side of Chicago 25 years ago, a woman who worked for a lawyer entered a 6-year-old African-American child with roller-skating prowess in speed skating upon the recommendation of the lawyer, whose son participated. Next Wednesday in the 1,000 meters, that child might become the first man to win an individual Olympic event three straight times, having won already in Turin (2006) and Vancouver (2010). Sometimes, life is about not really caring what the neighbors might think.
The potential for curling drinking games: As a wide swath of humanity would agree, permutations abound for drinking games during curling events. As humanity has had four years to concoct since its last Olympic curling viewing, you might just foam at the mouth thinking of the possibilities diabolical sorts might have cooked up. Or, not.
Here at last comes women's ski jumping, 90 years into the Winter Games, finally included after a protracted fight that included a lawsuit, with the favorite a Japanese star born in 1996 (Sara Takanashi:) Seriously, in your day-to-day life, did you ever once realize women weren't ski-jumping at Olympics?
The chance at a signal of our national toughness: One Norwegian official referred to cross-country skiing as "the NFL of Norway" in popularity, even as Norwegians somehow manage to watch it without the promise of somebody coming out of the woods and registering a sack. Of course, Norway's rugged history includes many a tale of people cross-country skiing to find food, a tradition that has helped spawn an all-time medal tally of n-n-n-ninety-six, which comes in at -- just a second -- 96 times our total (1976, Innsbruck, silver, Bill Koch!). Yet here comes Kikkan Randall from Alaska, with special thanks to former Secretary of State William H. Seward (1801-1872) for buying that vastness, because if the 31-year-old Randall can win a medal in her fourth Winter Games, one or two of us just might start going to the store in something other than an SUV.
Mysterious greatness gets a home game: Not only has Russian figure skater Evgeni Plushenko won a gold medal and two silvers across three Olympics in North America and Europe, and not only did he qualify for these Games in secret during a year of injuries and absence, but he's the guy who got silver in Vancouver but briefly stepped to the top of the podium in a bit of a protest, as if the judging in figure skating has ever warranted questioning.
Fresh stardom: Even at 18, Mikaela Shiffrin manages to combine the capacity to generate expectation -- she's a favorite in the slalom and a factor in the giant slalom -- with the capacity to accept that expectation with an apt blend of confidence and modesty. Then again, she did ask her father how soon she could enter World Cup races back when she was 10. She's had 44 percent of her life to prepare for the role.
The brighter place of fourth place: Whether in ancient events such as short-track-roller-derby speed-skating, or in debuting ones such as women's ski jumping and men's slopestyle snowboarding, we all sometimes ache a tad for competitors who finish in fourth place. Yet if we'll only adjust our thinking, we'll realize fourth place has never been better than nowadays, when fourth-place glumness can give way to bronze-medal glory even after years of waiting. All it takes is one doping positive somewhere down the line, and the beauty of hope can go ratified. Do think positively.