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With less than six months to go until the 2014 Winter Olympics kick off in Sochi, the countdown has begun to a spectacle that will feature sparkling new venues, compelling story lines — and even a bonus night of competition. "These Olympics are special because they are so big — with several very cool new added events — that they need an extra night of prime-time coverage," said Jim Bell, executive producer of NBC's Olympics coverage and former executive producer of TODAY.
Here are six reasons (one for each month to wait) to get excited about the 22nd Winter Olympics.
1. The biggest Winter Olympics ever
Twelve new events have been added for Sochi by the International Olympic Committee, eight of them in the freestyle and snowboard disciplines. There will be a total of 98 events across all the sports, in which athletes from an estimated 82 countries will vie.
"Fittingly, these are going to be the biggest Winter Games ever," Bell told TODAY.com. "So big, in fact, that the Games are starting the night before the Opening Ceremony." (The Olympics will run from Feb. 6-23, with competition beginning Thursday, Feb. 6, and the Opening Ceremony slated for the following night.)
Making their debuts in Sochi will be men’s and women’s slopestyle skiing, men’s and women’s halfpipe skiing, men’s and women’s slopestyle snowboard, men’s and women’s parallel special slalom, the figure skating team event, women’s normal hill ski jumping, the mixed relay biathlon and the team relay luge.
2. The return of Lindsey Vonn and the 'Flying Tomato'
Lindsey Vonn, who became the first American woman to win the gold in the downhill skiing competition at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, will be "trying to make a comeback from a terrible injury," Bell said. On Feb. 5, Vonn suffered a horrific crash at the 2013 World Championships in Austria in which she tore ligaments in her right knee and also suffered a tibial plateau fracture.
But Vonn has vowed to be ready for Sochi since suffering the injury, furiously rehabbing her knee in order to prepare for the Games. Vonn’s presence in Russia also means we could have a Tiger Woods sighting, as she announced in March that she is dating the famous golfer and has been spotted cheering him on at several of his tournaments.
Two-time Olympic gold medalist and X Games legend Shaun White also returns in a bid to make more history, and also to make his debut in a new event. “The Flying Tomato” may have cut off the long red hair that earned him his nickname, but he aims to keep his place on the medal stand the same when he attempts to win his third straight gold medal in the snowboard halfpipe competition.
White also will be competing in the inaugural slopestyle snowboard event, where riders perform tricks while navigating a course with rails, jumps and other obstacles and are judged by the variety and level of difficulty of their maneuvers. White has dominated the halfpipe competition for a decade, but will most likely be an underdog in the slopestyle event, which is a storyline to watch.
3. What sport will Al and Matt try next?
TODAY’s Al Roker and Matt Lauer always get into the spirit of the Olympics by teaming up to try their hand at a new sport, usually with mixed (and comical) results.
For example: At the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, they squeezed into fully-body lycra suits and attempted the two-man luge, with Al stacked on top of Matt. They proceeded to ricochet off every corner of the course before screeching to a stop before they made it to the bottom.
At the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, Matt and Al took a crack at synchronized swimming with some help from the U.S. women’s team. At the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, they put together a tandem rhythmic gymnastics routine for the ages.
What will they try next during their time in Sochi? Snowboarding? Ice dancing? You'll have to tune in to find out.
4. The first Winter Olympics in Russia
"The biggest country in the world, Russia, is hosting the Winter Olympics for the first time ever," Bell pointed out. Sochi also marks Russia's first Olympics since the Summer Games in 1980 in Moscow, when Russia was part of the Soviet Union.
The 1980 Summer Games were boycotted by the United States to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, so this is the first time American athletes will compete in the Olympics on Russian soil. And strained relations between the two superpowers persist as Sochi approaches; on Wednesday, President Obama has canceled a planned meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin amid tensions over NSA leaker Edward Snowden.
Still, Russia is sparing no expense to put on a spectacle for the world: Numerous reports have labeled the 2014 Winter Olympics as the most costly Games, summer or winter, in history, at more than $50 billion. Eleven new athletic venues being built will be divided into a mountain cluster and a coastal cluster, connected by a newly built railway.
Olympic Park is the centerpiece of the coastal cluster along the Black Sea, and it will host the Opening and Closing Ceremonies and the ice hockey, speed skating, figure skating, and curling events as well as being the site of the main Olympic Village. The mountain cluster of complexes will host the bobsled, skiing and ski jumping, snowboarding and biathlon events.
5. A possible USA-Russia ice hockey rematch
Bell told TODAY.com he is particularly excited about "the prospect of a USA/Russia Olympic hockey showdown on Russian ice." One of the most iconic moments in Olympic and overall sports history, the “Miracle on Ice’’ at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y., featured an underdog U.S. squad stunning a seemingly unbeatable Russian team, 4-3, in a medal-round game. The Americans, who were amateurs and college players, went on to beat Finland and take the gold medal after shocking a Russian squad that had dominated the international scene since the mid 1950s.
Much has changed in the landscape since then, as many Russian players now play professionally in the U.S. in the National Hockey League. Also, professionals are allowed to suit up for their respective countries, so rather than the underdog group of college players that made up the U.S. team in 1980, this competition is studded with NHL stars.
National pride will be on the line if the two old rivals meet on Russian soil, especially after the U.S. routed the Russians 8-3 in the World Championships semifinals in May. It marked the first time Russia or the Soviet Union ever allowed eight goals in the Olympics or world championships, so the home team will be looking for some payback.
One link to the “Miracle on Ice” who will be present in Sochi is Al Michaels, who will be part of NBC’s broadcast team. The legendary sportscaster delivered one of the most memorable calls in sports broadcasting history during the final seconds of the U.S. upset in 1980 when he said, “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!”
6. New American stars ready to shine
"Some great American stars you may not know: Mikaela Shiffrin, David Wise, Shani Davis, Sarah Hendrickson," Bell said. But even though they may not immediately ring a bell, there is a chance they could be household names by mid-February.
Skier Shiffrin is the reigning World Cup champion in slalom, where she is a gold medal favorite, while Wise is a freestyle skier and X Games gold medalist in the SuperPipe whose high-flying exploits could land him on the podium.
Speed skater Davis, the first African-American from any nation to win a gold medal in an individual sport in the Winter Olympics, will try to win his third straight gold medal in the 1,000-meter event. And Hendrickson is a ski jumper with 13 World Cup wins in her career who also looks to launch herself to gold medal glory at only 19 years old.
And if all that isn't enough to get you excited, Bell has one more: "Come on... it's the Olympics! You know you want that feeling again."