Mikaela Shiffrin, Yuzuru Hanyu, Ester Ledecka and more – 7 global stars set to light up Beijing
Ahead of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, Pete Sharland picks out seven global stars who could be set to absolutely light up the games and possibly produce their own unique moments of history. From Mikaela Shiffrin to Yuzuru Hanyu to Ester Ledecka, these are the names you need to be watching. Watch every moment of Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 on discovery+
Shiffrin storms to record-breaking 47th slalom victory
With the games set to start in just a couple of days we have picked out seven of the biggest stars that you need to be setting your alarms for. These are the athletes who are the type to get you jumping off your sofa, the ones you just have to experience live. Ready to go? Let’s get started.
Mikaela Shiffrin – Alpine Skiing, United States
We couldn’t start anywhere else, could we?
In a games full of stars there is none bigger than Alpine Skiing behemoth Mikaela Shiffrin, the Queen of Snow.
Shiffrin is a three-time overall World Cup champion, double Olympic gold medallist and six-time world champion. Her 73 World Cup race wins are third only to Ingemar Stenmark (86) and Lindsey Vonn (82). Her 47 Slalom wins are the most by any skier in a single discipline, ever.
She will turn 27 in March. 27!!!
‘A masterclass!’ - Shiffrin cruises to stunning giant slalom win in Courchevel
When all is said and done only a cataclysmic disaster will stop Shiffrin going down as the greatest skier to ever do it, and she will have put such a gap between herself and the rest of the pack that it will take a Herculean effort to ever overtake her.
The challenge now (and in Cortina in four years time) is to put herself into Olympic history. Right now she has three medals (two gold and one silver). No alpine skier has ever won more than four golds, done by Kjetil Andre Aamodt of Norway and Croatia’s Janica Kostelic. Aamodt’s eight medals in total is also a record.
In the ultimate testament to her uniqueness, Shiffrin will go for a medal in all five skiing disciplines, something that has never been done. Hypothetically she could pick up three to five medals in each of the next two games, which would catapult her into top spot. Three golds this games is possible, let alone across two games. This could be a legacy-defining games for the American.
However, stay tuned to Eurosport on Thursday for a piece highlighting the woman standing in her way in what should be a fascinating battle in the slalom.
Yuzuru Hanyu – Figure Skating, Japan
Did someone say legacy-defining?
It’s not often in the world of sport that someone does something that has never been done before.
But that is exactly what Yuzuru Hayu is aiming to do.
The 27-year-old Japanese star, in what will probably be his last games, will be attempting a quadruple Axel.
For those who aren’t figure skating diehards, that requires four and a half revolutions in mid air whilst nailing the landing. It is an extremely difficult move but if it lands it should result in a perfect score that would almost certainly guarantee gold. As my colleague Richard Newman outlines, it’s the ultimate high-risk, high-reward strategy.
Hayu is a fascinating individual. He has no social media (a real rarity for an athlete in this age), and hardly ever gives interviews despite his legendary status both in Japan and across the world. His fans are called the “Fanyu” and there has been plenty of anxiety over the past few years surrounding Hayu’s ankles, which have been extremely troublesome and raise doubts over his full fitness ahead of what should be a legendary battle with Nathan Chen.
Unfortunately due to the lack of crowds there will be no rain of Winnie the Pooh’s for Hanyu (see tweet below for the Fanyu’s tradition) so hopefully if he does decide to step away from the sport he at least has a farewell tour when crowds are allowed.
But for now make sure he’s on your TV and you drink every minute of him in.
Chloe Kim - Snowboarding, United States
Much like its new summer sister sport skateboarding, there are few sports like snowboarding when it comes to catapulting younger athletes into the spotlight.
Four years ago in South Korea there was arguably no bigger star than Chloe Kim, who became the youngest woman ever to win halfpipe gold at the Olympics at the age of just 17.
A lot changed after that, she became a global icon and has openly talked about how she struggled to deal with the increase in attention. A broken ankle in March 2019 meant an enforced break, during which time she enrolled at Princeton, and due to the injury and Covid-19 pandemic she missed the entire 2019-20 season.
However, since her return in January last year she has won both the X Games and the World Championships, and technically her unbeaten run goes back to that injury in 2019. In many ways she’s now possibly at her peak and that will make her must-see viewing during the Beijing games.
Johannes Thingnes Boe - Biathlon, Norway
When you start to look through the achievements by Johannes Thingnes Boe it can all start to feel a bit overwhelming since there are so many. At the age of 28, Boe has 52 World Cup Biathlon wins, putting him third on the all-time list. He has won the World Cup title in each of the last three seasons and already has 12 World Championship gold medals to his name as well as three Olympic medals, all won four years ago.
But if you were to then take a look at Boe’s record this season you might wonder why he is in this list. So far this campaign Boe has won just one race, which certainly pales to leader Quentin Fillon Maillet, who already has five wins to his name.
Boe secures first win of the new Biathlon season
There are a couple of reasons for this. The first is that the Norwegian team as a unit has made a deliberate effort to scale back a bit at the World Cup to maximise their performances at the Olympic Games. As a whole team they only have three wins all season. The second is more interesting. The International Biathlon Union has banned some fluorinated wax (used to lubricate the skis) due to health and environmental concerns. The fluoride waxes were excellent at what they did and the Norwegian federation in particular was one of the hardest hit, having invested millions into the technology. It has taken them (and a lot of other countries in fairness) a while to adjust.
But with six months of testing and knowledge at his fingertips Boe should be the favourite every single time he steps onto the snow. Boe’s greatest gift is in his speed, it’s astonishing how quickly he moves compared to some of his rivals. And this is while carrying a rifle that must weigh at least 3.5kg (7.7lb).
His shooting has improved tremendously over the past few years which has made him even more dangerous. Early on in his career it was almost comical watching him chase down those ahead of him having lost time in the shooting. But now? Now they often don’t have a chance. He’s a true superstar.
Dutch speed skating team - Speed Skating, Netherlands
Okay so this is perhaps a little bit of a cop-out. But we sat down and tried to pick one name out of the Dutch speed skating team and then we got a headache and had to go and lie down.
Let’s start with the women as this is the most complete group and they could very realistically sweep the gold medals. The headline act is of course five-time Olympic gold medal winner Ireen Wust who is competing in her last games. Wust is an icon of the sport and will go in the 1,000m, 1,500m and the team pursuit alongside Antoinette de Jong and Irene Schouten. The latter is a candidate for multiple medals with the 29-year-old having a perfect record in every 3,000m and 5,000m race she competed in this season.
On the men's side there is another legend who is also almost certainly saying goodbye: national icon Sven Kramer, the most decorated Dutch male Olympian with a total of nine medals. He’ll be flanked by Dai Dai N’Tab, Kai Verbij, Thomas Krol and Patrick Roest and is probably not quite at the level of Wust but will still be a threat in the 5,000m. The men’s field feels more open, though, and that could be where the drama comes in.
Speaking of drama, the speed skating team was rocked by a documentary that was released in the build-up to the games. In it there were critiques of national team coach Jan Coopmans as well the questioning of Wust’s place in the team. The one giving the critiques? Schouten and her coaches Jillert Anema and Arjan Sampionius… Post-race interviews and celebrations should be fun!
Ryoyu Kobayashi - Ski Jumping, Japan
In the Ski Jumping calendar there is one period that everyone looks forward to, every year it is circled in the diary: Four Hills.
Four Hills is part of the Ski Jumping World Cup and normally takes place over around a week. Within that week there are four jumps at four different hills across Germany and Austria at Oberstdorf, Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Innsbruck and finally Bischofshofen. It has become its own event in the way it is treated.
Since the first year in 1963, only three times has a jumper completed the Grand Slam, winning all four meets.
One of those jumpers is Ryoyu Kobayashi.
‘Ryoyu gets his hands on the Golden Eagle’ - Kobayashi wins Four Hills
Inspired to take up ski jumping by older brother Junshiro, Kobayashi has been a revelation over the past few years after really taking off in 2018. That 2018-19 season was one for the history books as he won 13 World Cup events as well as six titles during the season (overall, ski flying, Raw Air, Planica7, Willingen Five and Four Hills) and he has since become the man to beat, taking over for legend Kamil Stoch.
Covid-19 and the impact of the pandemic badly hampered his ability to train and that affected him for much of 2019-20 and 2020-21. In a sport dominated by Europeans, Kobayashi and his brothers (there are four of them in total) are uniquely hampered in terms of travel and preparation.
Of all the winter sports, Ski Jumping might be the most curious. Competitors hurtle down a huge hill and leap off it with only a pair of skis to cushion the blow. If you can ever go to a ski jumping venue make sure you do, most of them have viewing areas where you can effectively stand and look out and see more or less exactly what the athletes see. It’s rather alarming. Innsbruck famously overlooks a cemetery, so take that piece of morbidity for what you will. Ultimately it’s a singly beautiful thing to watch and Kobayashi is the ultimate definition of poetry in motion, don’t miss him.
Kobayashi comes up big to keep Grand Slam hopes alive
You didn’t really think we’d make a list like this and not include Ester Ledecka, did you?
No athlete made more of a name for themselves in the last games than Ledecka, who won Snowboarding Parallel Giant Slalom gold, an event she was one of the favourites in, and then stunned the world by triumphing in the Super-G, an event where she was a total outsider and was competing on borrowed skis.
The footage of Ledecka standing in disbelief at what she had done will live long in the memory.
It’s worth stating that when she won gold Ledecka wasn’t even competing properly on the Alpine circuit, she was averaging in the 30s if not lower when it came to World Cup standings. Remarkably in the 2019-2020 season she managed to finish second in the World Cup thanks to an incredible win at Lake Louise in December 2019. She also took a Super-G win in Val-d’Isere in December 2020.
This season she only has one podium but it’s really worth stating just how incredible what she is doing is. Some skiers will only do one Alpine discipline, Ledecka is regularly competing in two different sports. There is no athlete in the world as unique as the Czech superstar.