Sochi Winter Olympic Guide: Let the Games Begin

New events, new venues, new stories, new faces and other reasons to tune in

After seven years of preparation, Sochi, Russia presents itself to the world Friday at the kick-off of the XXII Olympic Winter Games. The opening ceremony and lighting of the Olympic cauldron will mark the official start to what has already been a record-setting event.

Over the next 17 days, athletes from 88 nations--more than any other in the history of the Winter Games--will compete across 15 disciplines, including 12 events making their Olympic debut. 

While several events--figure skating, freestyle skiing and snowboarding--got an early start Thursday, the Games won't be fully underway until Saturday. Here's a glimpse at what's ahead:

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The pressure's on Shaun White: After dropping out of the new Olympic slopestyle event the day before its first qualifying run, America's most famous snowboarder is facing mounting pressure to defend his halfpipe title. 

Will the women's figure skating team shine again? Until the Vancouver Games, an American figure skater had made it to the Olympic podium in every women's singles event since 1968. This year, all eyes are on Gracie Gold, Ashley Wagner and 15-year-old Polina Edmunds as they attempt to restore glory to the U.S. women's team.

Women's ski jumping debuts: After years of pushing for the inclusion of women's ski jumping to the Olympic Games, its moment has finally arrived. Three women will compete for the U.S.: Jessica Jerome, Sarah Hendrickson and Lindsey Van, one of the leaders of a years-long battle to get the sport onto the most prestigious international stage. 

Glory for the host country: Viktor Ahn, a speed skater who has notched four medals for South Korea, now skates for Russia and could bring a victory to his new home team. Russia is also looking for historic golds from its hockey team, figure skater Yevgeny Plushenko and pairs Tatyana Volosozhar and Maksim Trankov.

"Cool Runnings" 2.0? Jamaica's bobsled team is back for its fifth appearance in the Winter Games and--as in the Disney movie inspired by the team's Oympic debut-- the team got off to a dubious start. After qualifying they lacked the funds to get both themselves and their equipment to Sochi, but managed to raise enough money at the 11th hour. Will they top their respectable 14th place performance at the 1994 Games?

Cross-overs: U.S. track and field stars and sumer Olympians Lolo Jones and Lauryn Williams trade in their shoes for bobsleds, with both Summer Olympians looking for their first winter medals. 

New events, new formats: In addition to women's ski jumping, 12 new events have been added to the Olympic roster. They include team events in figure skating and luge, a biathlon relay, as well as men's and women's contests in halfpipe skiing, slopestyle skiing, slopestyle snowboarding and snowboarding parallel slalom.

New leadership: Sochi is the first Olympics for new International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach. So far he has been tested with a politically charged lead-up to the Games that saw a strong push for sponsors, athletes and leaders to boycott the event over an anti-gay propaganda law recently passed in Russia. How will he do once the Games are underway?

New venues: Just seven years ago, Sochi was a domestic tourist destination known for its Soviet-era spas and Black Sea beaches. After its successful Olympic bid, however, an unprecedented $51 billion infusion helped the mid-sized city shed its old-world skin and get ready for its first international mega event. Everything from roads and buses to the venues at the coastal and mountain "clusters" where the Olympic events will be held, are out-of-the box brand new.  

Unprecedented spectacles:
Dmitry Chernyshenko, the head of Sochi's organizing committee, recently told that the 2014 Games "will really amaze the world." If Sochi's eye-popping price tag and record 40,000-mile long torch relay are any indication of what's to come, these Games certainly will.

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