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Games set to take off in Turin

Paul Robbins

PRAGELATO, Italy – The snowsport side of the XXth version of the Olympic Winter Games hits the snowy ground running today with Nordic combined here in the valley below Sestriere, women’s moguls up-top in Sauze d’Oux, and ski jump qualifying – also down here.

With the gala Opening Ceremonies Friday night in Torino, about 90 minutes east of this mountain village closer to the French border, the focus for the Games swings to nearly nonstop action until the end of the schedule Feb. 26. NBC and its affiliates will broadcast a record 418 hours of Olympic competitions.

In addition to today’s lineup, the Sunday schedule called for men’s downhill in Sestriere, men’s halfpipe in Bardonecchia, normal hill (95-meter) jumping here, and the cross-country pursuit races – a 30-kilometer race (15Ks of classic technique, 15 more in freestyle, or skating technique) for the gents, a 15k test (7.5K CL and 7.5K FR) for the gentles, also here along the Chisone River.

Coaches and athletes were more than ready Friday to get things going. There’s a time for training and a time for competing. They were ready to shift gears and start competing.

U.S. Nordic coaches were hoping cross-country star Kris Freeman – a darkhorse for a medal in Sunday’s pursuit and Thursday’s 15K classic race – was able to shake the sluggishness which was sapping his energy. Nordic combined ace Todd Lodwick took to his bed Thursday afternoon, hoping a lengthy siesta would help drive off the stomach bug that had sideswiped him.

And as the Games got set to begin, the news broke about midnight Thursday that Olympic double medallist Evi Sachenbacher plus Americans Kikkan Randall and Leif Zimmermann were among eighth athletes suspended for five days because of high hemoglobin levels. No disciplinary action was taken, the International Ski Federation (FIS) said, because a high blood count is not illegal – but the suspension was taken by FIS as a medical precaution to give the athletes, who had been tested Wednesday and Thursday, a chance to allow their hemoglobin levels, which might have spiked because of several natural reasons (i.e., moving up to altitude – and Pragelato is at the mile-high mark – from sea-level) to drop routinely.

The ironic touch here is that during the 2002 Olympics, the Russian women were pulled out of the women’s 4x5K relay because one of the skiers had a high hemo level. With the Russians out, Germany – with Sachenbacher surging over the final 100 meters to pass Norway’s Anita Moen – took the gold medal. Sachenbacher also was silver medallist in the freestyle sprint, the first time the event had been on the Olympic schedule.

The suspension would be over Monday, meaning Randall could be free to take her expected spot in the team sprint Tuesday.

Elsewhere, Daron Rahlves was the featured buzz in Sestriere after mauling the Olympic downhill course Thursday, leading the first downhill training run by nearly 1.3 seconds. Rahlves – the most successful U.S. male downhiller (nine World Cup wins, including three this winter) – had thrown down the symbolic gauntlet.

"Game on, boys let’s do it," he seemed to be saying. Austrian Michael Walchhofer, the World Cup downhill leader, was second with icon Hermann Maier third.

Rahlves has pointed to four key targets this winter:

– VISA Birds of Prey DH at Beaver Creek, Colo., in December (he won)

– Bormio, Italy, DH in late December (he won)

– Kitzbuehel’s storybook Hahnenkamm DH in mid-January (he was third, .23 seconds behind Walchhofer)

– The Olympic DH Sunday in Sestriere (stay tuned)

Into the mix as a bonus, he plopped the Lauberhorn downhill Jan. 14, noting the victory, which tied him with Picabo Street for most DH wins in a U.S. skier’s career, was a birthday present for his wife Michelle, who’s been in Europe for the past month.

One reason Rahlves cut loose Thursday is because his last run in Sestriere – at the 2004 World Cup Finals – turned out to be a downhill victory. He’s confident on the course, a testing, twisting track which plays to the Lake Tahoe racer’s strengths, especially his technical ability on turns and through tricky sections.

But, first, the Nordic combined individual event Saturday. That’s two jumps on the 95-meter hill and a 15K race. The course at Pragelato has two sides, a mostly flat section and a hilly, demanding series of long gradual uphills and quick downhills, which figure to present quite a challenge.

While cross-country skiers aren’t intimidated by the mountain loops, combiners – who don’t have the same strength as x-c specialists – are a little more antsy. And if Lodwick is off his feed, it’s definitely possible he’ll take a pass on the brutal 15K so he doesn’t bury himself and eliminate any medal chance in the sprint during the final week of racing.

If Lodwick pulls it over, that could open an opportunity for Park City twins Brett and Eric Camerota to make their Olympic debut. One, perhaps Brett, figured to join Lodwick, Bill Demong and ailing former sprint world champion Johnny Spillane on the start line. And if Spillane – competing with a floating right shoulder that will undergo reconstructive surgery in the spring – figures the 15K is too overpowering, he, too, might save his reduced firepower for the sprint, further opening the door to Team Camerota in the first combined event.

Check NBC, MSNBC, CNBC and USA Network for local times of Olympic programming.


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