Olympics: Shiffrin, Ligety lead US ski charge in Sochi

Teen sensation Mikaela Shiffrin and Ted Ligety will lead the US medal charge at the Sochi Olympics, where Aksel Lund Svindal will also seek to cement his status as one of the sport's best ever male skiers.

Ligety was the star of last year's World Ski Championships, claiming three gold medals in the giant slalom, super-G and super-combined, while Shiffrin became the youngest American, at 17, to win world gold when she scooped the slalom crown.

Their display made up for the absence of teammate and media darling Lindsey Vonn, who sustained a season-ending knee injury in a horrific crash during the opening women's super-G.

The reigning women's Olympic downhill champion tried to make a comeback this season, but rightly called it a day and opted for further surgery when she realised her knee was not stable enough for the world of competitive skiing.

Organisers, though of course wishing her sporting prowess was on show, will no doubt be breathing a huge sigh of relief that the paparazzi roadshow that accompanies Vonn and boyfriend Tiger Woods will be absent from the Russian hills.

In Vonn's absence, the women's speed events evidently become a much more open competition, with German Maria Hoefl-Riesch currently atop the World Cup standings in downhill, with Liechtenstein's Tina Weirather, Swiss pair Marianne Kaufmann-Abderhalden and Lara Gut, Austrian Anna Fenninger and Slovenia's Tina Maze all well in contention.

All-rounder Hoefl-Riesch, possibly in her last competitive season, will look to add to the slalom and super-combined golds she won in the 2010 Winter Games.

The German also took super-combined gold and two bronzes (downhill and team) in last year's world champs, with Maze winning the super-G and two silvers (super-combined, giant slalom).

Maze also finished fifth in the slalom and seventh in the downhill to underline her incredible all-round skiing abilities, but her form this season has been sketchy, to say the least.

With Hoefl-Riesch's teammate Viktoria Rebensburg taking giant slalom gold in Whistler four years ago, Germany topped the medals table with three golds, with the Americans amassing a leading haul of eight.

The US team, with two golds, three silvers and three bronzes, were buoyed by medal-winning performances by veteran duo Bode Miller and Julia Mancuso.

Miller, now 36 and a five-time Olympic medallist, is the most decorated American skier in history and although his season's form has been patchy it has been improving, and only a fool would write off his chances of adding to his medal tally in what will be his fifth Winter Games.

However, the strapping figure of an "attacking Viking" will likely be standing in his and many other skiers' way to the top of the podium.

Aksel Lund Svindal is the defending Olympic super-G champion, and the Norwegian colossus also shone at the 2013 worlds in Schaldming, where he won downhill gold and super-G bronze, and narrowly missed out on the giant slalom podium.

So far this season, Svindal has won two of four men's downhills and two super-G races, and if he hits Sochi in good form, beware allcomers.

"There's no better preparation for the Olympics than winning World Cup races," the Norwegian said.

"I never understood why winning one week makes it impossible to win the next week.

"As a ski racer, shit happens so you better grab the opportunities you get and don't be picky about what weekend it is because there's just too much stuff that's out of your control, whatever you can get, you grab it."

The men's slalom also promises to be a real humdinger of an event, with the most competitive top 15 seen in a very long while.

The arrival of France's Alexis Pinturault as a proper contender to world slalom champion Marcel Hirscher of Austria, with a host of other rival skiers ever ready to push for the podium, is a welcome sight for the sport.

"Right now in the top 15 each of them can win a race and it has changed a bit over the last three or four years, with everything getting closer," said Hirscher.

"For the crowd and the sport and people interested in it it's a really good thing to have all these rivalries.

"For us it is tough, we have to go and push ourselves to our personal limits."