Ole Einar Bjoerndalen

Biathlon World Cup season preview

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It is likely that at least some major history will be set at the Olympic biathlon competition in February.

An American is in position to win the nation’s first Olympic medal in the sport. A Norwegian could break the record for most career Winter Olympic medals, two years after Michael Phelps reset the Summer Games mark. And two dominant biathletes are vying for the greatest single-Games Winter Olympic medal haul ever.

The biathlon World Cup begins with a mixed relay in Oestersund, Sweden, on Sunday.

Here’s the full World Cup schedule:

Oestersund, Sweden — Nov. 24-Dec. 1
Hochfilzen, Austria — Dec. 6-8
Annecy-Le Grand Bornand, France — Dec. 12-15
Oberhof, Germany — Jan. 3-5
Ruhpolding, Germany — Jan. 8-12
Antholz-Anterselva, Italy — Jan. 16-19
Pokljuka, Slovenia — March 6-9
Kontiolahti, Finland — March 13-16
Oslo, Norway — March 20-23

Here are three storylines going into the Olympic season:

1. Will the U.S. be a podium threat?

Four years ago, a big story (in winter sports circles) was the American rise of two sports with no U.S. Olympic medal history — Nordic combined and biathlon.

Tim Burke, a 2006 Olympian from Paul Smiths, N.Y., had worn the yellow bib in the run-up to the Vancouver Games, marking the World Cup standings leader. It made him a contender to end that Olympic medal drought.

Burke’s results in Vancouver: 13th, 18th, 45th, 46th and 47th. The Nordic combined team won four medals. The biathlon drought continued.

Burke is again rising going into an Olympic season.

In February, he won silver in the 20km individual race at the World Championships in Nove Mesto, Czech Republic. He also finished third in a mass start race earlier in the World Cup season. Those marked his first World Championships or World Cup podium finishes since that Olympic disappointment.

“If anything it has given me a good confidence boost,” Burke said of the worlds silver. “That proves to myself and everyone else  that I can compete with the best guys during the most important races.”

Burke must string together more positive results this season to earn medal contender status in Sochi.

Burke is one of three Americans who have already qualified for the U.S. Olympic Team, joining fellow two-time Olympian Lowell Bailey and would-be Olympic rookie Susan Dunklee. Bailey and Dunklee’s best single-race results last season were both seventh.

The rest of the U.S. Olympic Team will be determined by race results in December and January.

2. Ole Einar Bjoerndalen‘s quest for Olympic history

They call him the king for good reason. Bjoerndalen owns 11 Olympic medals over five Games. How good is he? He finished fifth in a cross-country race at the 2002 Olympics.

With one medal in Sochi, Bjoerndalen will match the most decorated Winter Olympian of all time — countryman Bjorn Daehlie, a cross-country skier who won 12 over three Games.

Can he do it?

Bjoerndalen turns 40 on Jan. 27 and has said these will be his final Olympics. He hasn’t made the podium of an individual World Cup or World Championships race since February 2012.

But Bjoerndalen is buoyed by relays. Norway has won every Olympic and World Championships men’s relay since 2009, and Bjoerndalen has always been one of the four chosen participants.

There will be three Olympic biathlon relays for the first time in Sochi. A mixed men’s/women’s relay will make its Olympic debut, perhaps easing Bjoerndalen’s quest to not only catch Daehlie but also pass him.

Norway won a medal in both World Cup mixed relays last season and won the World Championship. However, the mixed relay includes two men (as opposed to four in the men’s relay), and Bjoerndalen, the third-best Norwegian men’s biathlete last season, was not a part of the mixed team at all.

Bjoerndalen is not on the start list for the World Cup-opening mixed relay Sunday, the only mixed relay before the Olympics. Clearly, he must show strong individual World Cup form to ensure he’s on that mixed relay in Sochi. If not, could it become Carl Lewis situation?

3. More gold for Berger, Fourcade?

There is little doubt who the world’s greatest biathletes are.

Norway’s Tora Berger and France’s Martin Fourcade could sweep the individual Olympic events in Sochi — a feat not done since Bjoerndalen in 2002.

Berger could win six golds, given Norway’s relay prowess, which would break American speed skater Eric Heiden‘s record five from the 1980 Olympics.

Her path was opened with the early retirement of German Magdalena Neuner after the 2011-12 season. She blasted through it with four golds and two silvers at the World Championships in February and a sweep of the season titles in all four individual World Cup standings.

Fourcade, too, swept all four individual World Cup standings but was somewhat surprised at worlds, taking one gold and four silvers.

Watch their results over the course of the World Cup season, especially against their top rivals — Norwegian Emil Hegle Svendsen for Fourcade and Belarusian Darya Domracheva and German Andrea Henkel for Berger. Henkel is Burke’s longtime girlfriend.

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Several women’s players spurn worlds inquiry from USA Hockey

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As sports organizations and notable hockey figures express support of the U.S. women’s team, several players say they rejected overtures from USA Hockey to serve as replacements for the upcoming world championships.

Two players told The Associated Press on Friday that USA Hockey reached out to them to gauge their interest for the worlds, which begin next week in Plymouth, Michigan.

Brittany Ott, a goaltender for the Boston Pride of the National Women’s Hockey League, and Annie Pankowski, a junior forward at the University of Wisconsin, said the email from USA Hockey was not an invitation but rather an inquiry about their availability.

“I responded to that email and I said I’m not willing,” Pankowski said.

A third player, goalie Lauren Dahm, told the AP on Saturday she also turned down an invitation. Dahm plays for the Canadian Women’s Hockey League Boston Blades.

The U.S. team has said it plans to boycott the worlds over a wage dispute with USA Hockey, which confirmed Thursday it would begin reaching out to potential replacement players. Several players posted messages on social media saying they support the national team and would decline or have declined any outreach from USA Hockey.

“From a personal standpoint I have never been invited to a USA Hockey series or camp or anything like that and I would honestly love to be invited to something like that,” Ott said by phone. “However at the current time, this is a fight that I believe in and I’m definitely going to stand up and help fight as much as I can.”

Many players posted a version of a Jerry Rice quote on Twitter on Friday: “Today I will do what others won’t so tomorrow I can do what others can’t. I said no to USAH & will not play in the 2017WC.” Not all players who tweeted that message were asked by USA Hockey if they could play.

On Saturday, NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith joined the chorus of support for the players, saying on Twitter the organization stands behind their pursuit of fairness and equality.

“These women understand inequality when they see it and are expressing their right to be treated fairly as athletes and workers,” Smith tweeted. “Of course, they have the NFLPA’s support in daring to withhold their services until a fair agreement is reached.”

Philadelphia Flyers coach Dave Hakstol posted his support on Twitter, calling players competitors and role models.

On Friday, the NHL Players’ Association and Major League Baseball players posted messages of support. The NHLPA posted on Twitter that it supports players and panned USA Hockey’s bid to stock the team with replacements, adding that the decision “would only serve to make relations, now and in the future, much worse.”

The MLBPA encouraged all female hockey players to stand united behind their national team colleagues.

Players are seeking a four-year contract that includes payments outside the six-month Olympic period. The sides met for 10-plus hours Monday, but players have called USA Hockey’s counterproposal “disappointing.”

USA Hockey said Thursday its priority was to have all the players selected for the national team on the ice March 31 when the tournament begins. But the organization added that it informed players’ representatives it would begin reaching out to potential replacements with the tournament coming up.

Star national team forward Hilary Knight said last week she wished USA Hockey luck putting together a suitable team of replacements to defend the gold medal because the player pool was united in the dispute. Ott and Pankowski said they had not heard from any players expressing a willingness to play in worlds.

“It’s a very unified front,” Ott said. “It’s a tight-knit community that we have in women’s hockey here. This is definitely a big opportunity for us to make a big change and have a big impact on our sport and have it grow. We’re all standing together.”

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World Figure Skating Championships pairs preview

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Volosozhar and Trankov couldn’t do it. Neither did Shen and Zhao. Nor Gordeeva and Grinkov.

Canadians Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford can win a third straight pairs world title next week, a feat not seen since Irina Rodnina and Alexander Zaitsev of the Soviet Union won six in a row from 1973 through 1978.

But they don’t feel like favorites.

“We’re coming in a little more under the radar,” Radford said.

They lost their two most recent international competitions — third at the Grand Prix Final in December; second at the Four Continents Championships in February.

Duhamel and Radford are seeded fifth by best international scores this season going into the world championships in Helsinki (broadcast schedule here).

“Sometimes it feels like worlds last year was so long ago,” Radford said.

Last year in Boston, Duhamel and Radford had the performance of their seven-year partnership in the world championships free skate. They tallied a personal-best 153.81 points, more than seven points clear of their previous best.

It was easily enough to overtake Chinese short-program leaders Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, who were relegated to silver behind the Canadians for a second straight year.

This season, Duhamel and Radford haven’t come within 13 points of their 2016 World Championships total. Duhamel went through “an unforeseeable circumstance” in her personal life in November that she chooses not to reveal.

They implemented the throw triple Axel, but Duhamel fell three times in a four-event stretch this fall. They lost by nearly 13 points at December’s Grand Prix Final, which ended with a Duhamel backstage meltdown.

“We never fell like that at home [in practice],” Duhamel said on the IceTalk podcast. “It started to shake us up a little bit.”

They replaced the throw triple Axel in their program. Without it in February, both skaters had trouble with jumps at Four Continents at the 2018 Olympic venue and finished nearly 13 points behind Sui and Han.

“We kind of went back to square one, to the drawing board after Four Continents, reassessing what’s gone on this season, why are we underperforming, why are we not succeeding in competition the way we are training,” Duhamel said.

They made program changes, notably on their throw and jump entrances and overhauling the footwork in their short program.

Duhamel adopted a rescue dog from South Korea. Radford, who had surgery over the summer to remove a cyst from his ankle bone, leaned on a sports psychologist.

“I personally feel a lot more relaxed and seemless,” Radford said. “That feeling has come a little bit later this season.”

Five pairs could take gold in Helsinki in perhaps the most wide-open event.

Germans Aliona Savchenko and (French-born) Bruno Massot won both of their fall Grand Prix events but missed the Grand Prix Final after she tore an ankle ligament. They returned to take silver at the European Championships in January with the best score of their two-year partnership.

Young Russians Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov stepped up to win the Grand Prix Final, the second-biggest annual competition, and then the European Championships. But free-skate struggles have dogged them this season.

Another Russian pair, Olympic silver medalists Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov, are perhaps the biggest wild card. They missed the fall season due to Stolbova’s left leg injury, but then beat Tarasova and Morozov in their season debut at the Russian Championships. Stolbova fell on their throw triple flip in both programs at the European Championships in January, and they finished fourth.

Then there are Sui and Han, looking to break through for a first senior world title in their sixth try (though Sui is just 21 years old, and Han 24). They missed the fall season after Sui underwent right ankle and left foot surgeries last spring. They returned at Four Continents and posted personal-best free skate and total scores, ranking only behind Tarasova and Morozov for the season.

U.S. pairs Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Christopher Knierim and Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier have both missed significant time due to injury in the last two years. They are behind the top pairs from Canada, China and Russia.

The U.S. hasn’t put a pair in the world championships top five since 2006, and that doesn’t figure to change next week.

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NBC Sports researcher Sarah Hughes contributed to this report.