Fast and furious, snowboard cross ready for Olympics debut

Updated: February 15, 2006, 5:41 PM ET
Associated Press

TURIN, Italy -- And now for something completely different.

Smack dab in the middle of week one in Italy, two spanking new Olympic events award their first-ever gold medals Thursday: the speedskating team pursuit and the snowboardcross. Expect the wild and wacky as a half-dozen skaters or four snowboarders go flying simultaneously across the Piedmont region.

Wild and wacky? Figure skater Johnny Weir, the swan-suited aficionado of pop star Christina Aguilera, certainly qualifies -- even as he takes a more traditional path to a medal. Weir sits in second place, behind Russian favorite Evgeni Plushenko, heading into the evening's free program.

The Thursday night NBC Olympic programming expands by 30 minutes to run from 8 p.m.-midnight EST, with the Weir-Plushenko showdown providing the main event. Along with figure skating, the network will show the women's skeleton gold medal and the two new events on a day when medals are awarded in seven sports.

Snowboardcross is where the X-Games meet the XXth Winter Games. Competitors line up four wide before heading down a mountain course rife with whoops, waves, banks and kickers -- the names of various impediments. The juxtaposition of boarders and course can produce some major pileups.

The top U.S. hope to hurtle home with a gold medal is reigning world champion Seth Wescott, 29, who recently read a Top Ten list on "Late Show with David Letterman." But the team also has -- in the immortal words of Bill Murray in "Caddyshack" -- a "Cinderella story."

Graham Watanabe came to Turin as an alternate, resigned to serving as a wax technician for his friends on the snowboarding team. But when Jayson Hale went down with a torn ACL, Watanabe became an Olympic athlete. He's snowboarding with Wescott on Thursday as part of the U.S. team.

"I don't know what to say, this situation is really puzzling," said Watanabe, who did capture the U.S. Snowboardcross Championships in December. "It's hard to say that I'm happy because of his injury, but I'm really honored to be in his place."

One other thing: viewers are guaranteed of seeing an Olympic snowboardcross record set.

The same is true in the speedskating pursuit, but the record won't be established by the American men's team. The U.S. trio failed to qualify for the finals -- a loss that submarined speedskater Chad Hedrick's quest to match Eric Heiden's record total of five golds in a single Winter Games.

The event looks a bit like synchronized skating, with two teams of three skaters taking the ice on opposite sides of the oval. Once they take off, it's follow the leader with a twist -- the skaters take turns in front. This race doesn't go to the swift: The clock runs until the last skater hits the finish line.

The women's pursuit gold medal race is part of NBC's late night Olympic programming, airing Friday from 12:35 a.m-2 a.m. The American women were also eliminated in the qualifying heats.

The men's figure skating comes down to the free skate, although it looks like Plushenko will be nearly impossible to catch. Even under the new judging system, the Russian's lead makes him a virtual lock for the gold medal in Turin.

U.S. skater Weir offered one scenario for an upset victory: "If he falls three times, maybe, just maybe someone can squeeze by." If he doesn't, Weir is hoping to hold on for a silver -- the same medal Plushenko won four years ago.

Two more Americans, Evan Lysacek and Matt Savoie, were in the top ten going into the free skate

Men's hockey returns for another day of live coverage, mostly on MSNBC and Universal HD. The U.S. squad, led by captain and four-time Olympian Chris Chelios, takes on Kazakhstan at 3 p.m. in the one game airing on the USA network.

It's a game that takes on added importance after the Americans opened with a disappointing 3-3 tie against Latvia.

The U.S. women's skeleton team took gold and silver in Salt Lake City, a feat that cannot be duplicated in Turin since the squad numbers just a single member. Katie Uhlaender, the daughter of former major league baseball player Ted, will challenge Mellisa Hollingsworth-Richards of Canada and Maya Pedersen of Switzerland.

The team's coach, Tim Nardiello, was fired amid charges of sexual harassment against two members of the squad.

Olympic fans still swept up in curling-mania can watch the U.S. men live against Sweden at 5 a.m. on MSNBC. The U.S. women, now 1-3 after a victory over Denmark, hope to stretch their winning streak to two against Sweden on CNBC at 5 p.m.

Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press

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