The Olympic Alpine program starts with a bang. The men's downhill, considered by many as the marquis event in the sport, features the fastest skiers in the world taking on the flats and steeps of the two-mile long Dave Murray course at Whistler Creekside in one run.
It has been 16 years since a North American skier climbed the podium in the downhill, when the United States' Tommy Moe (gold) and Canada's Ed Podivinsky (bronze) starred at the Lillehammer Games. This could be the year when the European medal monopoly ends, however, as both nations have talented skiers capable of coming out on top.
Canada has a lot of momentum going into its home Olympics. Despite the loss of defending world champion John Kucera to a season-ending leg injury at Lake Louise, the "Canadian Cowboys" - the nickname of the speed team inspired by the "Crazy Canucks," their national team counterparts from the 1970's and 1980's - boast a line-up of World Cup veterans. Whistler Mountain skiers Manuel Osborne-Paradis and Robbie Dixon could enjoy some home-slope advantage, and Quebec native Erik Guay should also feed off the home-crowd energy. If one of them comes out on top, it will be Canada's first gold medal at a home Olympics, Summer or Winter.
The U.S. speed team has struggled in the early stages of the 2009-10 World Cup season. Likely starters Bode Miller of Franconia, N.H., Andrew Weibrecht of Lake Placid, N.Y., Marco Sullivan of Truckee, Calif., and Steven Nyman of Sundance, Utah, have only one top-ten finish in a downhill among them, with Miller finishing in 4th at Beaver Creek. However, the technical demands of the course could reap rewards for someone with Miller's experience. The Vancouver Games will be the fourth - and quite possibly, last - for the 32-year-old, who hopes to erase the memories from a poor Torino Games performance.
Competing on this side of the Atlantic should not hamper the Europeans too much. In the four Olympic downhills held on North American slopes (1960 Squaw Valley, 1980 Lake Placid, 1988 Calgary and 2002 Salt Lake), Austrians have won two and a Swiss and Frenchman one each. Hermann Maier retired prior to the season, leaving the Austrian mantle to defending Olympic silver medalist and three-time World Cup downhill champion Michael Walchhofer. The resurgent Swiss have several contenders, led by two skiers named Didier, 2009 world silver medalist and four-time Olympian Didier Cuche and Didier Defago, and rising star Carlo Janka. The 23-year-old Janka made a huge splash in December when he won all three events at Beaver Creek, including the Birds of Prey downhill. French skiers have traditionally excelled in this event (five Olympic titles), but are not expected to contend.
Dark horse candidates include the defending World Cup champion, Aksel Lund Svindal of Norway, Marco Büchel of Liechtenstein, Werner Heel of Italy and Andrej Jerman of Slovenia. Svindal has four World Cup victories in downhill in his career, but is stronger in the super-G and giant slalom. Buchel, competing in his sixth Olympics at age 38, Heel and Jerman favor the downhill, but have yet to put the perfect race together at the Olympics or Worlds.