The biggest storylines of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics

The Games in Sochi have an element of suspense. (USATSI)
The Games in Sochi have an element of suspense and newness and skepticism. (USATSI)

The Super Bowl’s over, and now the entire world turns its eyes to Sochi and the Winter Olympics. You’re curious about them as well, right? They gotta be (hopefully) better than what we saw Sunday night.

One of the fun but challenging aspects to many an Olympic viewer is knowing what to know. Most of these athletes live and train in obscurity until the Olympics come, and then it’s a huge spotlight and a whole lot of who-they-are-and-what-they-do that gets tossed from them and onto the viewers/readers. What are the stories leading up to the games? What will be the stories? Some we know; some not even in a clue.

In an effort to make you as well-equipped as possible, I’ve culled some of the most important happenings as we gear up for the games. Before we list that, let’s list the sports involved. There are 15 of them, with 98 events in total. That makes for 294 medals waiting to be handed out. In alphabetical order, and with the number of events in parenthesis, they are:

    1.    Alpine skiing (10)
    2.    Biathlon (11)
    3.    Bobsleigh (3)
    4.    Cross-country skiing (12)
    5.    Curling (2)
    6.    Figure skating (5)
    7.    Freestyle skiing (10)
    8.    Ice hockey (2)
    9.    Luge (4)
    10.    Nordic combined [biathlon] (3)
    11.    Short track speed skating (8)
    12.    Skeleton (2)
    13.    Ski jumping (4)
    14.    Snowboarding (10)
    15.    Speed skating (12)

As always, the major ski events are the best. Skeleton is the most terrifying/can't believe it's still actually allowed event. Curling: not just for hipsters anymore. Luge is fun but overrated. Short track speed skating still confuses 99 percent of humans. And if you’re able to watch cross-country skiing with any amount of joy, I salute you.

Now, the biggest storylines. In honor of my college hoops colleague Gary Parrish's weekly "Top 25 (and one)," I'm going with a Top 10 (and one):

11. Where will/can the U.S. get gold for the first time? The Winter Games are much, much smaller than the Summer Games. The U.S. has won 2,400 medals in the sunshine, as opposed to just 253 at Winter Olympiads. (Isn't that wild?) There’s a lot of expectations on the U.S. this year, given how the 2010 Vancouver Games saw our amazing, awesome country bring in the biggest haul of Winter Olympics medals ever (37).

The biathlon is the primary hope/goal for the United States, as it’s the only previously existing Olympic sport that the Red, White and Blue has never medaled in. Tim Burke is the best chance the U.S. has had in some time, according to those who know a thing or two about the biathlon. Burke, who turned 32 on Monday, has already won a world championship in the event, in 2013. The U.S. has also never won gold in ski jumping, luge, cross-country skiing or curling, but has earned silvers and bronzes on those competitions.

By the way, the new events to this year’s games: ski slopestyle, snowboard slopestyle, mixed parallel snowboard slalom, women’s ski jumping, ski halfpipe, team-relay luge, mixed-relay biathlon and mixed-team figure skating. More viewing options is a good thing for you.

10. Yes Ligety. Before we continue, watch this video immediately. So, with no Lindsey Vonn, who does America have on the slopes to root for? Ted Ligety has three first-place finishes on his recent resume, taking triple gold at the 2013 World Championships in Austria. Having skied in the past two Olympics, Ligety’s proven himself to be one of the best in the world, no question. Bode Miller is back on the slopes as well, and at 36, you’d have to think this is his last go-round at the Olympics. Miller’s five medals are an American Olympic record in ski events.

9. How the media covers the event — and how the Russians cover the media. The Russian government has been basically boasting over its ability and want to track to electronic activity of journalists at the Winter Olympics. All of this in the name of keeping the grounds safe, per local officials. The meta data culled by Russian authorities can be kept for three years after the games end. The way these Olympics are covered, and the inevitable discussion leading to how Russia allows/doesn’t allow the media to do its job, will become a talking point. I’m also including the Sochi bathrooms in this, as we’ll no doubt have unwanted Twitter pics coming in by the day of the facilities on-site. Olympics and media has become more of a story with each Olympiad, and it could hit a peak this time.

8. Figure skating’s couples’ rivalry. It’s America vs. Canada yet again, as the United States’ Meryl Davis and Charlie White are two-time world champs in ice dancing. The U.S. pair took gold at the world championships in 2011 and 2013, while Canada’s Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir won silver in 2012. At the 2010 Games? Moir and Virtue took it. This is probably the most hyped event on ice, given Evan Lysacek, America’s 2010 gold medal-winner in men’s singles, is not competing. Many sports fans might not embrace this right away, but know that it will absolutely be a big part of the television package NBC puts out.

7. Shani Davis’s chase for a third straight gold. Davis cuts an memorable figure, being the rare prominent black athlete at the Winter Olympics. He was the first male black athlete to ever medal at a Winter Games when he made his name known back in 2006 and the first to win individual gold. Davis has won the past two 1,000-meter events in the Olympics — which had never been done prior to his accomplishment — and will chase a third straight. In the 1,500, Davis took silver in Turin and Vancouver. Getting gold in either event would make for one of the all-time great American Olympic careers.

6. Hockey! Russia desperately wants to win, having not earned a gold medal in men’s hockey in 22 years. Alex Ovechkin, a six-time NHL All-Star and three-time MVP, will lead Team Russia. Canada’s the defending champ here. Winter Olympics ice hockey is a different sport from the NHL in that is a slicker game with much less haggle. At its best, it’s one of the most riveting watches in all of sports. This year should be great, as usual. On the women’s side, the United States has failed to beat Canada at getting the gold the past three Olympics. It’d be a great story if Team USA finally got back to the top of the podium. By the way, here's what the USA goalie will be wearing atop his noggin.

5. Shaun White. He’s the most recognizable American Olympic athlete at these Games, and he’s also competing in/popularizing a genre of sport that seems to grow by the year. The defending, two-time champ of men’s snowboard halfpipe is the favorite to win again. Snowboarding has only become more legitimate as a sport over the past decade, and White’s been a large part of that. Best thing about White’s inclusion to this year’s Olympics? He’ll be competing in slopestyle snowboarding as well. The female counterpart to White is Hannah Teter, who won gold in Turin and bronze in Vancouver. They'll both be a lot of fun to watch.  

4. Lolo Jones' bobsled endeavor to win her first gold. Shaun White might be the biggest and most beloved American star at these games, but Lolo Jones is the one who is polarizing and the bigger story. She and track teammate Lauryn Williams became the ninth and 10 American Olympic athletes to ever compete in the Summer and Winter Games. Jones is part of the four-person boblsed team that is trying to win that coveted gold medal. Jones' inclusion to the team was brought with some controversy; one column posited NBC played a powerful hand in the decision-making. It's a move the network steadfastly refused. No matter what Jones does, controversy and chatter follows. That's good for Olympics biz.

3. The money. A lot of it, basically, is in somewhere the ether. Accusations and assumptions of fraud have come like clockwork. Sochi has broken all records regarding spending. Russian president Vladimir Putin has said it only cost $7 billion to build the buildings explicitly for Winter Olympiad usage. Others believe that is a laughably low figure.

Russian officials estimated in 2013 that the games were slightly more than $50 billion in total. Either way, where the money’s gone and how effective the Russian/Olympics officials have been at staging the world’s greatest sporting event will be very interesting to see. Reports from Sochi will also, hopefully, be able to tell the rest of the world how efficient everything is. There's also the controversy that's bubbled up, an accusation that an alleged crime boss with heroin ties helped lock up Russia's bid to the Olympics seven years ago. From the start, Sochi has not by short on the stagecraft.

2. The terrorism concerns. There is no doubt this aspect of the 22nd Winter Olympics hovers heavy, dark and unceasingly. No matter what happens, those attending won't be able to put it completely out of mind. Terrorist groups have vowed to attack Sochi and the games, on site. "Black widows," women who've lost their husbands and are supposedly looking to be suicide bombers on-site, remain something of a concern and still a ficticious scare tactic for some. The local chief of the games has said Sochi itself, as one collective venue, is the safest sports place in the world at the moment. President Obama recently echoed that sentiment, though it should be noted that Obama is taking a somewhat transparent decision in opting not to attend these Olympics. We're hoping for no news on this front. The Olympics already has too many terrible stories of things gone wrong regarding attacks, hostage situations and other truly scary transgressions.

1. Human -- and animal -- rights issues. The issue of gay rights in Russia has been a sensitive topic for years, but in bringing the world to its doorstep, the awkwardness around the existence homosexuality and freedom in Russia has only been enhanced. Protests from athletes, should they be desired, have been requested to be held at the confines of a podium. Other protests from other groups will be cordoned off to certain sections, and it's possible we won't know of or hear of many, should they happen.

Also extremely disturbing: multiple reports out of Sochi that officials are killing off stray dogs. It’s completely horrific, and stands to be a massive controversy. Yahoo Sports veteran investigative reporter Charles Robinson tweeted early Sunday about an encounter he had.

If true, absolutely horrific. This story could very well gain traction as we head into the week, and if that's the case, it could be as noisy a newsmaker as anything else in the lead-up to the opening ceremony.

CBS Sports Writer

Matt Norlander is a national award-winning writer who has been with CBS Sports since 2010. He's in his seventh season covering college basketball for CBS, and also covers the NBA Draft, the Olympics and... Full Bio

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