Reuters - Thu, 04 Feb 14:40:00 2010
Speed skating has produced Olympic heroes from invincible American Eric Heiden to triple champion Johann Olav Koss of Norway and the 2010 Games have candidates who could command the Vancouver stage in similar style.
American Shani Davis, who in 2006 became the first black man to win an individual Winter Games gold medal when he took the 1,000m title, holds the world record at that distance and in the 1,500m and will compete in four events - the 500m, 1,000, 1,500 and 5,000.
Davis decided to pass on the 10,000m, the marathon race that crowned the five-gold haul for Heiden in 1980 - something that now seems a difficult target in an age of specialisation in events whose demands range from explosive speed to muscle-burning stamina.
The Americans almost struggled to get to the starting line as USA Speedskating lost its sponsor when Dutch bank DSB went bankrupt in October.
To the rescue came comedian Stephen Colbert, host of the mock cable television news show "The Colbert Report". He adopted the team as a cause and through his viewers raised more than $300,000 as 'Colbert Nation' became the official sponsor.
Looming as favourite to dominate the distance events of 5,000 and 10,000m is 23-year-old Dutchman Sven Kramer (pictured), world-record holder at both distances and winner of the last three world all-around titles.
The powerful Kramer likes the Vancouver ice and holds the Richmond Olympic Oval track record over 5,000 and 10,000m, but bagging a clutch of world records the way Koss the Boss did in 1994 in Lillehammer is not on the cards.
The stylish, new, $178-million speed skating arena, with a "wood wave" roof enclosing an environmentally sensitive design, is unlikely to feature world-record times given the relatively heavy, sea-level air of Vancouver.
Asians are fancied to figure in the 500m as South Korean Lee Kyou-hyuk won the world sprint championships in Japan, ahead of compatriot Lee Kang-seo with Japanese Keiichiro Nagashima third.
Other men capable of taking multiple medals include Italian Enrico Fabris, the 2006 1,500m champion, and Norwegian Havard Bokko, a leading middle-distance skater.
The depth of talent and nature of Olympic competition could lead to surprises.
"This is an event where special people come out from nowhere and have a performance of a lifetime," American Chad Hedrick, the 2006 Olympic 5,000m champion, said.
"This isn't a World Cup, a world championships. This is a different ball game."
On the women's side, the home country fields a strong team coming off an impressive showing in the last Games.
Cindy Klassen led the way for Canada in 2006 by claiming gold in the 1,500m, silver in 1,000 and bronze in the 3,000 and 5,000m as she became the most decorated Canadian Winter Games athlete ever with six career medals.
Germany's Jenny Wolf has been the world's leading sprinter, while Martina Sablikova of the Czech Republic, winner of five world championship golds, has been dominant at distance races.
Up-and-coming skaters tipped for success in Vancouver include Canada's Christine Nesbitt and 20-year-old American Trevor Marsicano, who took four medals in four days at the world single-distance championships at the Olympic oval.
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