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Sochi's Olympic Games are here

Looking ahead to first week of competition from Russian resort's mountain cluster



The Olympic countdown clock is finally nearing zero.

The past 48 months since the Winter Games were in Vancouver and Whistler have seen Canadian athletes toiling away as they've worked towards exceeding the success they realized in 2010, when Canada set a new record for most gold medals captured at a Winter Olympics.

Much of the attention on Sochi, Russia, has been for all of the wrong reasons. Human rights abuses, terror threats and corruption have marred these Games in the eyes of many, before they've even begun.

But once the flame is lit at the Fisht Olympic Stadium, it will be less about the politics and more about the performances that amaze and inspire us every four years.

Although some preliminary competitions will get underway on Thursday, Feb. 6, they'll start handing out medals two days later, all the way through to the closing ceremonies on Feb. 23. On the eve of the Olympics, Pique takes a look at some of the key event finals from Sochi's mountain cluster you won't want to miss from the first half of the Games. Check back next week when we'll set up the remaining events for you. See the full schedule now at, where you can also find our ongoing Olympic blog.

Saturday, Feb. 8

Women's moguls; men's snowboard slopestyle; women's cross-country skiathlon; men's 10 km biathlon sprint

Day 1 of the Games should see Canada get on the board with multiple medals if all goes according to plan. Slopestyle will be the first new Olympic event to debut in Sochi, and with heavy hitters like Mark McMorris, Sebastien Toutant and Maxence Parrot in the field for Canada, more than one podium finish isn't unthinkable.

Meanwhile, each of the Dufour-Lapointe sisters — Chloe, Maxime and Justine — are ranked in the top five on the World Cup moguls tour this season and are all capable of capturing a medal on the first day of competition.

Sunday, Feb. 9

Men's downhill; men's luge; women's snowboard slopestyle; men's cross-country skiathlon, women's 7.5 km biathlon sprint

The alpine schedule kicks off, presenting Canada's first chance to erase its 20-year Olympic medal drought. Whistler-trained skier Manuel Osborne-Paradis, Erik Guay and Jan Hudec are capable of podium performances on any given day, while Invermere's Ben Thomsen earned a silver medal at the World Cup test event in Sochi two years ago. The Canadians can't be counted out in this one.

The women's slopestyle team isn't quite as deep as the men's, but Courtenay's Spencer O'Brien is a serious medal threat. She's coming off a bronze medal at the Winter X Games and arrives in Sochi as the reigning world champion.

Sam Edney, Mitchel Malyk and John Fennell get their luge races underway on Feb. 8, but take their final two runs on Feb. 9. See Pique's feature on Edney and the Canadian luge team on page 58.

Monday, Feb. 10

Men's moguls; women's super combined; men's biathlon pursuit

Gold appears to be a certainty for Canada in men's moguls, but we'll find out who takes it on Monday. World champion Mikael Kingsbury and reigning Olympic champ Alex Bilodeau have been nearly untouchable this season and a one-two finish feels inevitable the way they've dominated the season. Philippe Marquis and Marc-Antoine Gagnon bring podium potential for the Canadian team as well.

Meanwhile, Marie-Michele Gagnon, already a super combined winner on the World Cup circuit this season, will hope her all-around skills on the race hill can put her on the podium during her first race at Sochi.

Tuesday, Feb. 11

Women's ski slopestyle; men's snowboard halfpipe; women's luge; women's ski jumping; women's biathlon pursuit

Kaya Turski showed no ill effects of her knee reconstruction when she captured the X Games gold in slopestyle last month, so consider her a favourite in this event. Local product Yuki Tsubota will be looking to build off the late-season performances that earned her a spot in Sochi, while Kim Lamarre and Dara Howell are all solid medal contenders as well.

Whistler's Crispin Lipscomb last rode the Olympic pipe in 2006 but he's back in Sochi this year. Ontario riders Derek Livingston and Brad Martin will join him in the field.

Alex Gough, the most decorated luger in Canadian history, will get a chance to wrap up the women's singles race with a medal. Pencil in a bronze or better for her.

Finally, women's ski jumping will make its debut at the Olympics, with Atsuko Tanaka and Taylor Henrich competing for Canada.

Wednesday, Feb. 12

Women's downhill; women's snowboard halfpipe; doubles luge

Lots of locals in the halfpipe on this day — Whistler's Mercedes Nicoll will compete in her third Games, while local residents Alex Duckworth and Katie Tsuyuki will try to make their way through to finals as well.

Larisa Yurkiw will gun for a downhill medal after realizing her Olympic dream this winter without any support from Alpine Canada. Tristan Walker and Justin Snith will try to put their doubles luge sled on the podium, now holding a World Cup medal in their back pocket.

Thursday, Feb. 13

Luge team relay; men's ski slopestyle; men's 20 km individual biathlon; women's 10 km classic cross-country

If Canada hasn't collected a luge medal by this point of the Games, the relay will be the last chance. It might also be the Canada's best chance for one, considering Gough, Edney, Walker and Snith's consistency in this new Olympic event.

Alex Beaulieu-Marchand is the lone Canadian in the slopestyle field, but there will be no shortage of skiers well-known to Whistler in the event, also a new Olympic discipline.

Friday, Feb. 14

Men's super combined; women's skeleton; women's 15 km individual biathlon; men's 15 km classic cross-country

The final women's skeleton run brought heartbreak for Canada in 2010 when Mellisa Hollingsworth fell out of a medal position. This Valentine's Day, she and Sarah Reid will look to make Canadian hearts swell when taking their third and fourth runs at the Sliding Center Sanki.

Saturday, Feb. 15

Men's skeleton; women's super-G; women's 4 x 5 km cross-country relay

The men's skeleton gold looks like it's headed somewhere other than Canada this year for the first time since 2002, but a medal isn't impossible. Canadians Eric Neilson and John Fairbairn will push for the podium on Feb. 15, their last day of competition.

Two of Marie-Michele Gagnon's nine top-10 finishes on the World Cup alpine circuit this winter have come in super-G, but this won't be her best chance for a medal at these Olympics.

Sunday, Feb. 16

Men's super-G; women's snowboard cross; men's biathlon 15 km mass start; men's 4 x 10 km cross-country relay

Another big day for local athletes — Maëlle Ricker, currently nursing a broken wrist, will try to defend her Olympic gold from 2010 in snowboard cross while competing in her fourth Winter Games. She and Dominique Maltais provided a one-two Canadian finish at the world championships last winter.

Meanwhile, Whistler's Morgan Pridy will make his Olympic debut in the super-G. While he won't bring the podium potential that Canadian Cowboys Osborne-Paradis, Guay and Hudec will, getting that first experience at the five-ringed circus will be a special moment for the 23-year-old.

Don't forget: Guay has posted top-five super-G finishes at each of the last two Olympics. Is this the year he punches up into the top three?

Monday, Feb. 17

Two-man bobsleigh; men's snowboard cross; men's aerials; women's biathlon 12.5 km mass start

Canada had three pilots ranked top-10 on the World Cup this year — Justin Kripps, Lyndon Rush and Chris Spring. All three of them drove their way onto the podium at least once this World Cup season.

Squamish's Rob Fagan and other Canadians Chris Robanske, Kevin Hill and Jake Holden will take to the snowboard cross course, hoping to recapture a medal after Mike Robertson's silver in 2010. Travis Gerrits, a world championship silver medallist and a World Cup winner this year, is Canada's lone aerials competitor.

Tuesday, Feb. 18

Men's halfpipe ski; women's giant slalom

The Whistler-based halfpipe team will shoot for multiple medals, though they'll be up against tough French and American squads who are capable of doing the same. Mike Riddle, Justin Dorey, Matt Margetts and Noah Bowman all have the ability to lay down a gold-medal run in the pipe for Canada.

Marie-Michele Gagnon leads the women's alpine team into the Feb. 18 GS, but fellow Canadians Erin Mielzynski and Marie-Pier Prefontaine could turn in strong showings in this race as well.

Wednesday, Feb. 19

Women's bobsleigh; men's giant slalom; men's and women's parallel giant slalom; biathlon mixed relay; cross-country team sprints

Can they find the Olympic magic together again? Kaillie Humphries and Heather Moyse will attempt to tame the Sochi track and reclaim the bobsleigh gold they captured as a duo in Whistler in 2010. Humphries has been the undisputed top pilot since the last Winter Games and claimed another World Cup title this season.

Some of Canada's up-and-coming technical racers will get their first taste of the Games during the men's GS.

Jasey-Jay Anderson is back to defend his gold medal in the men's PGS, while fellow Canadian rider Caroline Calvé can challenge for a medal on the women's side.

Thursday, Feb. 20

Men's ski cross; women's halfpipe ski

Whistler's Dave Duncan has been on fire this World Cup ski cross season and he'll look to roll the momentum over to Sochi alongside Canadians Brady Leman and former world champ Chris Del Bosco, who was fourth in 2010 and on the podium for the Olympic test event in Russia last winter. All three are serious medal contenders.

Roz Groenewoud showed that her knees are doing just fine when she reached the Winter X Games podium last month, just a few weeks removed from bilateral knee surgery. Considered one of the favourites ever since halfpipe skiing was announced as a new Olympic event, a medal will be in sight for the Squamish resident. Alberta's Keltie Hansen could be a dark horse pick for a podium finish.

Friday, Feb. 21

-Women's ski cross; women's slalom

Marielle Thompson arrives in Sochi in the middle of a dominant season of ski cross racing. The Whistler product has two wins and four podium finishes this season, and also skied to a silver medal at last year's Olympic test run. Former world champ Kelsey Serwa and fellow B.C. skier Georgia Simmerling give Canada a very deep lineup for this event.

The Canadian alpine team will once again turn to Marie-Michele Gagnon in what's been her strongest discipline. She goes into Sochi ranked fourth on the World Cup tour in women's slalom thanks to three top-five results this winter.

Saturday, Feb. 22

-Men's slalom; men's and women's parallel slalom; women's biathlon relay; women's 30 km cross-country mass start

Whistler's Mike Janyk has a long wait for his race, but will be Canada's best hope for a strong finish while making his third trip to the Olympics. Janyk has struggled for much of this season but has posted top-20 finishes in each of his other two appearances at the Winter Games.

Sunday, Feb. 23

-Four-man bobsleigh; men's 50 km cross-country mass start

Why, yes, there is more than just a men's gold medal hockey game on the day of the closing ceremonies. Lyndon Rush drove Canada 1 to bronze in four-man competition at the Whistler Sliding Centre in 2010. The crews piloted by Chris Spring and Justin Kripps can factor into the medal discussion as well.