Rivals wary of Ahn in Sochi
SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - For the short track speed skating medal hopefuls at the Sochi Winter Olympics, Russia's Viktor Ahn is the main man.
All eyes will be on the veteran skater as he goes up against his former South Korean team mates trying to win host nation Russia its first ever medal in the sport.
He will also be aiming to add to his four Olympic medals from the 2006 Torino Games when he was competing for South Korea.
"(Ahn) is one of the best short track speed skaters to ever put skates on," said Apolo Anton Ohno, America's most decorated Winter Olympian, who has retired from the sport.
"His technique, his experience, and his ability is at the very, very top, and I think his chances of winning gold are very high."
Formerly Ahn Hyun-soo, the 28-year-old took on the name Viktor for good luck when he switched allegiance to Russia after being passed over by South Korea for the 2010 Vancouver Games.
"The best way to pay tribute to my hero (Ahn) is to go beyond him," Liang Wenhao of China told reporters.
In the notoriously unpredictable, high-velocity sport, 500 meters Vancouver gold medalist Charles Hamelin and American rising star J.R. Celski are also strong medal shots.
"With good people like Ahn, I think the racing will be awesome," said Hamelin, who is competing alongside his brother Francois and girlfriend Marianne St-Gelais.
"This year and last year he was a very tough guy to beat."
Unlike speed skating, short track athletes battle each other instead of the clock over 500, 1,000 and 1,500 meters.
In one of the most unlikely medal wins of any sport, Steven Bradbury went from trailing far behind Ohno, Ahn and two others in the 1,000m to winning Australia's first Winter Olympic gold in 2002 when the front runners crashed in a dramatic pile-up.
In the four years since Vancouver, China and South Korea have dominated short track.
South Korean men have won every overall title across all the individual distances, although the team has been weakened by the loss of 1,500 world record holder Noh Jin-kyu.
The Asian speed skating powerhouses will be chased by a strong men's teams from Canada, the United States and the Netherlands in the 5,000m relay.
On the women's side, China and South Korea have split the individual overall titles over the past four years.
South Korean teenager Shim Suk-hee and compatriot Park Seung-hi, who won bronze in 1,000m and 1,500m in Vancouver, are two of the country's most formidable contenders in Sochi.
They Koreans are also determined to win the 3,000m relay after they were disqualified from the gold-medal spot at the 2010 Games for impeding China.
China's women, led by two-time 500m world champion Fan Kexin, are primed to once again battle it out in the relay.
"Our team is like a sword," Chinese coach Li Yan told reporters, after training in Sochi this week. "What we need to do these days is to sharpen our sword."
But the absence of injured four-time Olympic champion Wang Meng opens up the women's individual events to Canadian St-Gelais, Italian Arianna Fontana and Briton Elise Christie.
"It would be nice to see more Europeans on the podium, not just Chinese, Korean and Canada," Fontana told reporters.
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)
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