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Ladies first in Sochi's Black Sea bubble

Kim Yu-Na, Sara Takanashi and Mikaela Shiffrin have the task of dragging the Winter Olympics out of Sochi's Black Sea bubble and transforming a spectacle so long bullied by its brash summer cousin.

Paris: With the Russian resort under security lockdown, and with $50 billion (37bln euros) lavished on the February 7-23 showpiece, the likes of figure skater Kim, ski jumper Takanashi and teenage slalom queen Shiffrin are set to be headline-makers.

Their grace and power will undoubtedly overshadow even Ole Einar Bjoerndalen.

Who? He's the Norwegian biathlete who has 11 medals stretching back to 1994 and needs just one more to join compatriot Bjorn Daehlie as the most decorated winter Olympian of all time.

Sara Takanashi
Sara Takanashi. Pic/ AFP

The fact that biathlon struggles to be TV-friendly is symptomatic of the Winter Olympics' struggles to break out of its core markets -- there will be around 3,000 competitors at Sochi compared to 10,500 who took part in London's Summer Olympics.

At least Kim has the advantage of figure skating's wide exposure.

The 23-year-old South Korean world champion is the defending gold medallist from Vancouver in 2010, although she heads to Sochi slowly building her form after suffering a right foot injury.

"I'm in good shape," said Kim, as she bids to become just the third woman to win back-to-back Olympic figure skating titles and the first since Germany's Katarina Witt in 1984 and 1988.

"It's not easy to do well every time, but I've made preparations enough to gain plenty of confidence."

Kim will quit after Sochi, as will her Japanese rival Mao Asada, the 2008 and 2010 world champion and silver medallist at Vancouver.

Japan failed to win a single gold four years ago, but in 17-year-old Takanashi, they should bury that statistic as women's ski jumping makes its historic bow at the Games.

On Sunday, Takanashi soared to her eighth World Cup win this season.

With major rival Sarah Hendrickson of the United States still recovering from a cruciate ligament injury after a fall in August, Takanashi looks as close as a sure thing for gold in the mountains above Sochi.

Women's ski jumping is not the only new arrival in Russia.

In all, 12 more golds will be won this time thanks to the addition to the Games programme of, for example, a team event in figure skating as well as slopestyle as the X-Games complexion of freestyle and snowboarding becomes even more important to the portfolio.

In Alpine skiing, the United States will look to shrug off the injury-enforced absence of Lindsey Vonn by pinning their hopes on 18-year-old slalom queen Shiffrin, the world champion and winner of last year's World Cup crystal globe.

Norway's Aksel Lund Svindal, the winner of two men's downhills and two Super-G events this season, looks unstoppable although the erratic talents of Bode Miller, now 36, and with five Olympic medals to his credit, may have an impact

In slalom and giant slalom, the technical rather than speed events, the US will look to Ted Ligety to hold off the charging Austrian, Marcel Hirscher.

Japan will look to Yuzuru Hanyu, Tatsuki Machida and Daisuke Takahashi, the 2010 Vancouver bronze medallist, to challenge Canada's Patrick Chan, the triple world champion, for the men's figure skating title.

But former champion Yevgeny Plushenko, the 2006 Turin gold medallist, will thrive on home support if he wins selection.

The raw power of ice hockey superpowers Canada, the defending champions, and old rivals the United States, should again see them into the gold medal match-up.

WHoever gets there, a host of NHL stars such as Canada's Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin of Russia, will light up the competition.

Ovechkin will be cheered on by tennis star fiancee Maria Kirilenko battling for flashbulb space with Russian rival Maria Sharapova, who is also due to attend the Games as a presenter for US broadcaster NBC.

One star uncertain to be in Sochi is China's most decorated winter Olympian, Wang Meng.

The 28-year-old speedskater has a broken ankle and looks likely to miss the opportunity to add to her four gold career haul.

That will be a bitter blow for China, as she took three of the national team's five gold medals at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver.

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