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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Games Start With Ice Trial for Russia

By the time the Olympic flame reaches Lillehammer, Norway, to open the XVII Winter Games on Saturday, more than 2,000 athletes from nearly 70 countries will be ready to harvest the fruits of years of training and sacrifice.

The eyes and heartstrings of the world will be glued to the small lakeside town for the following two weeks to see Olympic dreams realized and to feel sympathy for those who fall short.

The Games offer athletes the ultimate stage on which to ski, slide or skate their way into history through unparalleled accomplishments or crushing defeats.

Russian Nordic skier Lyubov Yegorova was the champion of champions in 1992, dominating the trails and medal count by winning five medals, three of them gold. Then there was the emotional failure of American speed skater Dan Jansen, who fell and failed to live up to expectations.

This Olympics will be remembered in part by the appearance of many new countries, most notably Russia and the various former Soviet republics.

During the last two Olympics, in 1992 at Barcelona, Spain and at Albertville, France, the Russians competed under the mantle of the Unified Team, which was the former Soviet Union minus the Baltic Republics. In Lillehammer, there will be a Russian team as well as teams from most of the other former Soviet Republics, which will have their own national flags and anthems, unlike in 1992 when they competed under the Olympic flag and anthem.

Before the opening ceremony is over and most of the athletes have paraded in front of the world, the first Olympic event will already be underway. Three ice hockey games are scheduled for opening day, including Norway vs. Russia, who will have to overcome several obstacles to carry on the dominant tradition of the former Soviet Union and the Unified Team. This will be the youngest and most inexperienced Olympic team to date.

"This team is 100 percent different from any team that I have had before," said Viktor Tikhonov, the three-time gold medal-winning hockey coach. "It is the youngest team I have coached."

Although the cream of the Russian ice hockey players have left the country for the big contracts in North America's National Hockey League and are unavailable to play in the Olympics, there is still a wealth of talent in this country as well as players on Europe-based teams, which release players for international competition. But most of the best available Russian players are still very young and inexperienced, and have not had much opportunity to play together at all, much less at the international level. Since the Unified Team won the gold medal at the Albertville Olympics.

Tikhonov has had to rebuild the Olympic team from scratch. All the players from that team -- except one goalie who didn't make the current team -- have left Russia for contracts in the NHL.

"There is not one national team player left," Tikhonov told The Moscow Times. "This team is not even close to the last Olympic team I coached."

The Russian team will still be a force to be reckoned with, even though Russia finished last on goal difference over the weekend in a four-team Olympic tune-up tournament that included the Olympic squads from the Czech Republic, Sweden and Canada.

That should not be taken as a sign of Russia rolling over and quitting. Tikhonov has been known to play a different style of hockey in warm-up games to avoid tipping his hand before the games that count.

Besides Tikhonov has assembled a formidable squad that includes many highly regarded players -- including defenseman Oleg Tverdovsky, who has been projected as the top pick in this spring's NHL draft. The team has been further bolstered with the addition of Dmitry Starostenko, a talented right wing currently playing in the New York Rangers farm system.

The Russians have demonstrated their ability -- albeit on home ice -- by winning the Izvestia Cup tournament in Moscow last December, beating the Olympic teams of the United States and Finland, while tying Norway and the Czech Republic en route to the finals.

Sweden, the United States, Canada and Finland poise the biggest threats to an unprecedented fourth gold medal for Tikhonov. The Scandinavian countries and the Czech Republic, another highly regarded side, have standing national teams, giving them continuity and extensive experience together and at the international level.

The United States and Canada have put together gritty, physical sides that feature fast skaters and hard shooters, but both teams have vulnerable defenses.

Canada finished second to the Unified Team in 1992 with the Czechoslovakia snaring the bronze medal.

Tikhonov, however, refused to single out any one rival he feared most.

"All the teams will be tough," he said. "There are always surprises in such competitions and the worse thing to do is to underestimate your opponents."

He learned that in his first Olympics in 1980 when the United States stunned the Russians 4-3 and then skated off with the gold medal two days later.