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COUNTDOWN TO SOCHI: Speed skating stars eye gold

Shani Davis will try to win his third straight gold medal in the 1,000 meter speed skating event this month in Sochi, which would make him the first male speed skater to win the same event at three consecutive Olympic Games. (Reuters)

Shani Davis will try to win his third straight gold medal in the 1,000 meter speed skating event this month in Sochi, which would make him the first male speed skater to win the same event at three consecutive Olympic Games. (Reuters)

American Shani Davis is aiming for a three-peat in Sochi, Dutchman Sven Kramer craves retribution while German great Claudia Pechstein must dethrone Czech Martina Sablikova to enhance her Olympic legacy at her sixth Games.

The quartet form a few of the intriguing plot lines for the highly-anticipated Olympic speed skating competition, which gets underway at the Adler Arena in the Black Sea Resort on Saturday.

The first of 12 events is the men’s 5,000 meters where Kramer is red hot favorite to retain his Vancouver title and bring home the title for Netherlands.

It was the only gold the 27-year-old from Heerenveen managed in Canada four years ago despite his publicly-stated ambitions of claiming three to cement his position as one of the sport’s greats.

A coaching error proved his downfall in the 10,000m where his victory celebrations were halted when he was notified that he had been disqualified after skating in the wrong lane.

A bronze in the team pursuit did not help his mood. He is again aiming for three golds in Sochi, and imperious form on the World Cup circuit and world championships have his confidence soaring.

“I’m way more favorite on the 5k than the 10k,” Kramer said.

“I didn’t lose any 5ks this year. 10ks are going much better this year than the last couple of years. I put in a lot of training hours.”

American Davis is going for his own set of three golds when he tries to defend the 1,000m title he won at the Turin and Vancouver Games.

The 31-year-old Chicago-born Davis, the first black athlete to claim an individual Winter Olympic gold, is trying to become the first male speed skater to win the same event at three consecutive Games.

“I feel good about my chances,” Davis told Reuters.

“I’ve accomplished my main goal of getting to Sochi 2014 healthy and confident. I’ve been successful this year on the World Cup circuit and at the U.S. Olympic Trials, but the Olympics is an event unto itself.

“My prospects for gold are as good or better than any other speed skater, except maybe Sven Kramer!”

Davis will be trying to match the achievements of 42-year-old Pechstein, who won three women’s 5,000m titles at the Lillehammer, Nagano and Salt Lake City Games from 1994-2002.

That run was halted by Canada’s Clara Hughes, who relegated Pechstein to the silver medal position in Turin before her hopes of competing in Vancouver were ended by a two-year ban from the International Skating Union for abnormal values in a series of blood tests.

Pechstein, who has nine Olympic medals to her name, vehemently denied the accusations, pointing to her record of never having failed a drug test.

In her absence, Sablikova skated her way to the 5,000m title in Canada which followed victory in the 3,000m and led to then International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge dubbing her the “Queen of Skating.”

Sablikova has won three of their four battles on the World Cup circuit this season with Pechstein winning one and finishing second on the other occasions but the Czech is taking nothing for granted.

“Everybody will be well prepared but I think all of the Dutch, and for sure Pechstein (will be too),” the 26-year-old told Reuters of her likely challengers in Russia.

South Korea enjoyed a breakthrough in the sport at the Vancouver Games with their first gold medals as Mo Tae-bum took the men’s 500m and Lee Sang-hwa the women’s, while Lee Seung-hoon was the benefactor of Kramer’s disqualification in the 10,000m.

Lee Sang-hwa has enjoyed a stellar World Cup season and broke the world record over the distance making her a firm favourite to win in Sochi, while Mo has also shown good form heading into what looks an open race in Russia.

Home hopes lie with Denis Yuskov in the men’s 1500m, while Olga Fatkulina will attempt to break Lee’s stranglehold over 500m and battle impressive American Heather Richardson over 1000m.

“I’m really happy I was able to finish with a really strong 1,000 meters,” Richardson said after winning gold at the long track world sprint championships in Nagano, Japan earlier this month. “I’m looking forward to getting to Sochi.”