With the opening ceremonies for the 22nd Winter Olympiad now completed, it's time for fans and athletes alike to focus on the competition, which will no doubt be among the most watched sporting events ever for a variety of reasons, some good (the greatest number of athletes from the largest contingent of nations, with a record number of countries taking part in their first-ever Winter Games) and some not so good (the most expensive Games in history, massive security concerns, how long Vladi Putin can keep his shirt on?).
For some nations the likelihood of winning a medal may be extremely remote, while traditionally strong teams will have considerable expectations to win, and win big. Though it may not seem like it, any nation that qualifies, no matter how few athletes or events they represent, are still among the most elite on Earth, as you don't just show up at the Olympics, you have to earn that privilege.
We have therefore compiled our list of what we believe to be the 10 countries with the most pressure to gain podium status in Sochi;
11 Honourable Mention: Jamaica
While I admit that this may seem absurd to some people, allow me to elaborate. As the sole participants from the island paradise, the Jamaican bobsled team may seem to be little more than a peripheral sideshow or even a joke for some when it comes to their actual potential to challenge for a top ten showing or even a medal. But that would be seriously understating the fact that any teams or individuals that have qualified for Olympic competition have at least some measure of opportunity to surpass expectations and make a good showing of themselves.
Thanks in no small part to their ability to qualify for these and other Olympiads, the immense support they have received in past Games from Olympic spectators and the success and popularity of the Disney film 'Cool Runnings,' the Jamaican bobsled team has become legendary in the eyes of the Jamaican people, who would absolutely freak out should they perform above and beyond expectations. This certainly adds to the pressure for them to do well in Sochi; and you better believe that I'm rooting for them as well.
Irie, a fi we country! (No worries, this is our country!)
10 Great Britain
The Brits, perhaps inspired by the success of Canada's 'Own the Podium' triumph at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games, have instituted a similar goal for their athletes to earn a record number of medals in Sochi. Considering that in the 90-year history of winter Olympiads, GB has won 23 medals in total, this expressed desire for between 3 to 7 medals in 2014 certainly seems achievable, especially considering that 4 Olympic medals in one Olympiad (the original 1924 Winter Games in Chamonix, France) has been the nation's best showing to date, and that for Sochi, British athletes have received more financial support to accomplish this target than ever before.
Jolly good; jolly, jolly good.
By offering the same financial rewards for their athletes' Olympic success as they did fouryears ago in Vancouver (11.7m KZT or $75,000 US for Bronze, 23.3m KZT or $150,000 US for Silver and 38.9m KZT or $250,000 US for Gold), the Kazakhstan government has signaled its continued commitment to ensuring their athletes are among the most fiscally motivated for Sochi 2014. Despite this significant monetary incentive or probably as a direct result of it however, the pressure for Kazakhstani's to gain podium finishes is now considerable, though reasonably speaking no amount of money can possibly guarantee that Olympic success will be more likely as a result.
Іске сәт! (Good luck!).
8 Czech Republic
There's no denying that for those nations with Northern climates, competing at any Winter Olympic Games carries considerable expectations for medal success, and this is certainly the case for the Czechs, whose athletes' first Olympiad as a newly independent country was in Lillehammer, Norway in 1994 (having previously participated as Bohemia from 1900-1912, and as Czechoslovakia from 1920-1992). We have seen them earn a total of 16 medals between Lillehammer and Vancouver 2010, at which they earned just two Golds. No doubt the most pressure will be on their Men's Ice Hockey team, which captured the nation's first ever Winter Gold medal in a thrilling 1-0 victory over arch rivals Russia at the Nagano, Japan Games in 1998. With an impressive roster of NHL players (who may well be competing in their last ever Winter Olympics, according to league officials), most famously Jaromir Jagr among others, as well as serious medal contenders in numerous other events, the Czech Republic is hoping Sochi could be their time to shine.
Dejte mi to. (Give me this).
Having earned 10 medals in their host event in Nagano including 5 Golds, Japanese athletes didn't earn a single Gold medal in Vancouver four years ago, a crushingly disappointing result for a nation that holds honor in the highest esteem, and one that only adds to the intense pressure on their athletes to gain podium status this year. Sochi 2014 will see Japanese women outnumber their fellow male competitors for the first time, and includes their 17-year-old Women's Ski Jumping sensation Sara Takanashi, who last year finished second at the World Championships. Though generally humbly stated, the Japanese are an intensely proud people who are more determined than ever to bury the memories of 2010 under the weight of Olympic Gold, Silver and Bronze.
乾杯 (Cheers!/Good health!)
Having finished second in total medals in 2010 with 30 (only 7 behind the top placed United States) including 10 Gold, 13 Silver and 7 Bronze), the Germans who have had numerous impressive results in previous Winter Olympiads, will have increased pressure to build on that success with their stated target of at least repeating their top 3 showing from four years ago. Despite being led by the current Alpine World Cup front runner Maria Hoefl-Reisch, the German team this year consists of just 30 athletes, which will definitely increase the challenges for such a relatively small contingent to outperform their success from the Vancouver Games.
Gehen wir! (Let's go!)
The Norwegians with 23 and the Austrians with 16 finished 4th and 5th respectively in Vancouver for total medals behind only the Canadians, Germans and Americans, and will therefore have significant expectations to at least match these performances in Sochi, and there's good reason to believe they can both do so, as their teams for Sochi include many top ranked athletes, particularly in their consistently strong Alpine teams.
Never a country to shy away from pressuring its citizens, the Chinese athletes at Sochi will have considerable incentive to make a stronger showing in 2014, despite finishing a respectable 8th place in total medals in Vancouver, tied with both Sweden and France with 11 (5 Gold, 2 Silver and 4 Bronze), their best ever results in a Winter Olympiad. The incentive of course is should they not perform up to their Government's standards, Mao help them. Making their Winter Olympic debut in Lake Placid, NY in 1980, it wasn't until the Salt Lake City, Utah Games in 2002 that China earned its first winter Gold medal, leading one to suspect that there's something about competing in the US against their arch geo-political rivals that brought out the best in their athletes, though it could just as easily have been their access to America's plethora of cable television channels.
To absolutely no one's surprise, the Americans have once again sent a very talented and viably medal-expectant team to the Sochi Games, and will be carrying the weighty hopes of a nation looking to once again top the field in total medals (having won a first place 37 in Vancouver) and reclaim Olympic Gold supremacy (with only a disappointing 9 four years ago, they have a lot riding on Sochi). If one had to pick which Team USA members were shouldering the heaviest burden however, it would undoubtedly be their Men's Ice Hockey team.
Taking a 2-1 advantage late into the third period against uber rivals the USA four years ago, Team Canada seemed poised to win a historic Gold medal on home soil, but the gritty and determined Americans seemed to dash those hopes with a fevered attack that saw them tie the game with less than 25 seconds remaining in regulation play and steal the momentum. It was not to be however. In what is widely considered to be the most thrilling game in the history of Olympic Hockey competition (the American's monumental 'Miracle on Ice' notwithstanding), Canada's Sidney Crosby took a pass right on the tape from Jerome Iginla and rifled a shot through the five-hole of American goalie Ryan Miller at an almost impossible angle in overtime to literally suck the spirit from their Team USA nemeses, setting up what is certain to be one of the most intensely competitive events at the Sochi Olympiad.
Go American or go home!
With their Olympic record-setting result of 14 Gold medals and their best ever 3rd place finish in total medals won in 2010, Team Canada's much criticized 'Own The Podium' strategy of providing more financial aid, more training and more available facilities for their athletes in order to deliver winning performances at home in Vancouver could not have been more successful, though it does come at the cost of now asking this year's team to improve on those efforts. For a nation that is seen internationally as polite, understated and reserved almost to a fault, the pressures on Canadian athletes to win big in Sochi has never been greater, and if there is one element of Team Canada that is carrying the hopes of the entire nation on its back, it is undoubtedly their Men's Ice Hockey team.
After their mind-blowing victory over arch rivals the United States in Vancouver four years ago, the desire among this hockey-crazed nation to see their defending champions repeat their performance from 2010 cannot be understated. Though they won't have the benefit of an adoring home crowd cheering them on this year, Team Canada is sending its largest ever contingent of 212 athletes that includes a record 100 women, and thanks to their continuation of OTP, they will certainly be among the best prepared and highly motivated of any participants in Sochi.
The True North Strong and Free, Baby!
There is little doubt that the country with the most pressure to deliver at Sochi will be Team Russia. In one of their worst Olympic performances in history at Vancouver's 2010 Olympiad (a paltry 3 Gold, 5 Silver and 7 Bronze), Russia's Shirtless Tsar for Life Vladimir Putin was determined to secure the 2014 Games for his homeland (by throwing more money than even the bribe hungry IOC had ever seen before) and set his nation's expectations for victory on overdrive in the process.
Not only do Russian athletes have this to contend with, the international spotlight on the seemingly endless problems plaguing the Sochi Games (including of course security issues, massive corruption, incomplete venues and facilities, Putin's personal anti-Gay policies and side-by-side toilets) has only increased the pressure for their performances to erase those concerns by showering the Russian people with Olympic Gold. Despite assurances from Putin that these Games will be safe for everyone involved, there is no telling what may happen, which is likely to make the lives of Russian athletes even more difficult as competition gets under way, though they do have the support of literally the entire globe in hoping that the only unexpected incident will be the refusal of their custodial staff to empty the wastebaskets full of soiled toilet paper.
Vsyevo kharoshevo! (All the best!)