Before the races actually start, the biggest story line in Alpine skiing at the Sochi Olympics centers around someone who will not be there: Lindsey Vonn, the reigning downhill gold medalist and a four-time overall World Cup champion.
If not for her surgically repaired right knee, Vonn would have been the one to watch, not only on the slopes – where she might have been expected to at least match her two-medal showing from Vancouver in 2010 – but also off them, in part because of her boyfriend, Tiger Woods.
”We want to grow as a sport, and like every other sport, we are dependent on the international stars,” said Atle Skaardal, the International Ski Federation women’s race director. ”And Lindsey Vonn is definitely an international star.”
Her injury-forced absence means there will be room for other ski racers to earn victories, grab attention and have their stories told. In some respects, the 10 events in the mountains – starting with the men’s downhill on Feb. 9, weather permitting – turn into a referendum on the next possible face of the sport.
On the women’s side, Maria Hoefl-Riesch of Germany, Lara Gut of Switzerland, Tina Maze of Slovenia, Tina Weirather of Liechtenstein, and 18-year-old Mikaela Shiffrin of the United States all have the potential to win more than one medal.
Among the men, Aksel Lund Svindal of Norway, Marcel Hirscher of Austria, and Ted Ligety of the United States probably are the likeliest to exit these Winter Games as household names around the globe.
Here are five Alpine skiing story lines to follow during the Sochi Olympics:
”THE NEXT VONN:” Already given that label by some, Shiffrin might be a bigger favorite in the slalom than any other woman is in any other event. She owns a World Cup title and world championship gold in slalom.
”Mikaela is very, very success-oriented in her approach. It really reminds you of someone like Lindsey,” U.S. women’s Alpine coach Alex Hoedlmoser said. ”She is training a lot. She puts everything aside. The focus is all on the sport.”
Still, Shiffrin leaves time for being a typical teen – well, one who travels the World Cup circuit with her mother – such as when she mashed up Lupe Fiasco’s ”Battle Scars” and Coldplay’s ”The Scientist,” then had that musical combo in her head while finishing second in a giant slalom at home in Colorado.
As another American teen, swimmer Missy Franklin, made clear at the London Olympics, there’s something about success at a very young age that captivates an audience.
AKSEL’S RISE: Svindal already enjoys rock-star status in Europe, thanks to his pair of overall World Cup titles and his three medals at the Vancouver Games.
Even he’ll tell you he’s got a shot at medals in four of the five events this time: downhill, super-G, super-combined and giant slalom.
”I have really good chances in two events,” Svindal said, ”and I have decent chances in the two other events.”
AUSTRIA’S COMEBACK: Skiing is a big deal in Austria, which has won nearly twice as many Olympic Alpine medals as any other country, including 14 in 2006. But in 2010, Austria came away with only four medals – and zero for their men for the first time at an Olympics they entered.
Hirscher is expected to play a big part in rectifying that. He’s the two-time reigning overall World Cup champion and took gold in slalom and silver in giant slalom at last year’s world championships.
WOMEN TO WATCH: Hoefl-Riesch, not Vonn, was the only woman to leave Vancouver’s slopes with two golds, and the German is still as good as anyone out there. If Hoefl-Riesch doesn’t dominate, Maze (who broke the record for most World Cup points last season), Gut (who missed the 2010 Olympics with a dislocated hip) or Weirather (whose mother, Hanni Wenzel, won two gold medals at the 1980 Lake Placid Games) could.
AMERICAN VETERANS: The U.S. left Vancouver with eight Alpine medals, their best showing at an Olympics and twice as many as any other nation collected in 2010. That won’t be easy to replicate, especially without Vonn, but there are folks with plenty of experience and success on the team, including Ligety (an Olympic gold medalist in 2006, and three-time world champion in 2013), Bode Miller (owner of five Olympic medals, including three in 2010 – gold in super-combined, silver in super-G, bronze in downhill), and Julia Mancuso (one gold in 2006, two silvers in 2010).
AP Sports Writers Pat Graham in Beaver Creek, Colo., Andrew Dampf in Bormio, Italy, and Graham Dunbar in St. Moritz, Switzerland, contributed to this report.
Follow Howard Fendrich on Twitter at http://twitter.com/HowardFendrich