RICHMOND, British Columbia (AP) -- Dutch favorite Sven Kramer will go head-to-head against U.S. skater Shani Davis in the 5000m Saturday, the first race in his attempt for a golden Olympic speed skating triple.
In the opening gold-medal event of the competition, the multiple world champion is expected to face the toughest challenge from Enrico Fabris of Italy, who is hitting his best form since he won two gold and a bronze at the Torino Games four years ago. Bob de Jong, who took the 10,000m title four years ago, wants to make it a Dutch duel with Kramer.
Kramer and Davis, who is tipped to win gold in the 1000m and 1500m, will be the first of the favorites to go out, setting a target for the others in the last three couples to go out.
The American challenge is led by Chad Hedrick, the defending Olympic champion who is retiring as soon as the Olympic flame is extinguished. Hedrick will be in the last pairing with Norway's Håvard Bøkko, knowing whether gold is his immediately after he crosses the line. The others will all have a difficult wait in the infield, hoping their times will stand up for a medal.
Anyone beating Kramer would make for a major upset at the Olympic Oval. The Winter Games, though, are known to spring surprises.
"We know what the five rings do," said Hedrick. "They make you or break you. Sven and Havard are the ones I have to beat to make it happen."
Fabris had always said racing after Kramer would be essential in the race for gold, as he is able to check, and hopefully match, the intermediate times of the Dutchman in each of the 12 laps.
The Italian is in the next-to-last race with his training mate Ivan Skobrev of Russia, also a potential challenger.
If anything, this is Kramer's gold to lose. He has won the last three 5000m world championships and holds the world record. He has improved as the season progressed. And his motivation comes from missing out on gold in Torino, where he won silver in the 5000m and bronze in the team pursuit.
"Coming in second would really mean it has gone wrong," Kramer told the Dutch NOS network. "I do not set off on that premise."
Such are expectations that even Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende already has reserved his seat at the stadium. If Kramer fails, Balkenende might still be cheering for De Jong.
A win for Kramer on Saturday would also improve the odds for him to add the 10,000m. Over that distance, too, he is a triple world champion and world record holder. Over the long distances, his winning streak extends over two seasons.
To complete a triple, Kramer would also have to lead the Dutch to victory in the team pursuit.