Winter Olympics: Americans get their fix of swirling sprites and soaring snowboarders

The Winter Olympics start Thursday (Feb. 8), so it's time to get serious about it. If you scroll down one, you'll see a fun story I sent to papers, focusing particularly on NBC's Apolo Ohno. Now here's a look at some of the events and people likely to draw American viewers. One more thing, with some TV-time details, is next.

By Mike Hughes

As the Winter
Olympics arrive, NBC likes to offer grand vistas and great

Its viewers,
however, often want more. They want events that Americans understand
... and maybe have a chance to win..

Many Americans have
never quite understood the luge, the bobsleigh or the skeleton. NBC's
Mary Carillo once said the two-man luge looks “like a bar bet gone

Some find curling
and cross-country skiing too slow, short-track speed skating too
fast, the biathlon too weird. (Yes, it involves skiers with rifles;
at least they're not texting.)

But there's much
more, with strong American prospects.

“So much of Team
USA's strength involves the female athletes,” said Mike Tirico, who
will be NBC's main anchor. He points to the effects of gender-equity
rules that started 45 years ago. “Title IX's multiple generations
now are yielding strong women's teams in so many American sports.”

Some of the key
events and people are:

Americans have savored this, ever since the wins by Peggy Fleming
(1968), Dorothy Hamill (1976) and Scott Hamilton (1984). This time,
they have a front-runner among men (Nathan Chen), but not among

By comparison,
Americans used to scoff at ice dancing ... until Meryl Davis and
Charlie White won the silver medal in 2010 and gold in 2014. Now the
U.S. again has strong medal contenders, with the brother-sister duo
of Alex and Maia Shibutani.

Boosting NBC is the
relatively recent addition of a team event. That adds three more
days; the 18 Olympic days will include 12 days of figure-skating,
much of it in prime time.

The team portion
starts Thursday – before the opening ceremony -- with the short
programs for men and pairs. Saturday has the pairs finals and the
short program for women and ice dancing; Sunday has the men, women
and ice dancing finals and the team medals.

Then it starts all
over, with individual competition – short program one day, then
finals. Pairs will be Feb. 13-14, bringing some Valentine's Day
passion. Men are Feb. 15-16, ice dancing on Feb. 18-19, women on Feb.
20 and 22 and an exhibition by the medalists on Feb. 22.

-- SKIING: Here's a
prime example of the American women, with an old and new star.

In 2010, Lindsey
Vonn became the first American woman to go gold in downhill. She was
out with an injury in 2014, but is back; in the weekend before the
Olympics, she took her 80th World Cup victory.

And the new star is
Mikaela Shiffrin. In 2014, at 18, she became the youngest person to
win Olympic gold in slalom; now, at 22, she's favored in several

This is another event with old and new stars.

The familiar one is
Shaun White, who went gold in 2006 and 2010, then finished fourth in
2014. He's back at 31, after surviving a tough crash during training.

And the newcomer is
Chloe Kim, who would have made the 2014 team ... except she was too
young (13) to qualify. Now she's ready at 17, with a string of gold
medals in Winter X Games.

-- HOCKEY: For five
Olympics, hockey fans thrived. The National Hockey League took a
break, letting players join their home-country teams.

The Canadians won
three gold medals, the Czechs and Swedes took one apiece. Americans
took silver twice, losing to Canada in 2002 and 2010.

This year, however,
the team owners aren't going along and the pros won't be there.
“Clearly, it does disrupt the NHL season,” said Jim Bell, head of
NBC's Olympic coverage. He talks hopefully of “a good storyline
developing should some young Americans emerge, as they did in

And Tirico points to
the U.S. women, who “might become one of the biggest stories for
both hockey tournaments.” They took gold the first time women's
hockey came to the Olympics (1998), then have been won silver four
straight times, always with Canada going gold.