"Iron Lady" Marit Bjorgen leads Norway's charge
ROSA KHUTOR, Russia - With 'Iron Lady' Marit Bjorgen and Petter Northug leading a formidable squad, Norway look set to crush the opposition in the cross-country events at the Sochi Olympic Games, just like they did four years ago in Vancouver.
Northug has established himself as one of the most consistent male performers since the 2010 Olympics, where he claimed two titles to help Norway secure nine medals - five of them golds.
But the biggest star is undoubtedly Bjorgen, who likes to keep a down-to-earth approach to the Games even though she is closing in on compatriot and fellow cross-country skier Bjorn Daehlie's Winter Games record of 12 medals.
Embedded owg_slideshow: Best of Vancouver: Marit Bjorgen
"I am going to try and perform as best as I can in Sochi," said the 33-year-old, who will start her campaign on Saturday by trying to defend her title in the skiathlon.
"However, I am not interested in trying to break the records set by Bjorn Daehlie and (biathlete) Ole Einar Bjoerndalen. This maybe my last Olympics and I believe that if I am in great form then I can win any race."
Bjorgen has 12 world titles to her name, as well as seven Olympic medals, five of them from Vancouver.
Bjorgen, however, will have to see off the challenge of 25-year-old Therese Johaug, the overall World Cup leader who will be a force to be reckoned with in Sochi.
Poland's Justyna Kowalczyk, a quadruple Olympic medalist, could threaten Norway's dominance but a problem with her left leg could weaken her chances, while Charlotte Kalla of Sweden is hoping she will successfully defend her 10km freestyle title.
Local favourite Yulia Chekaleva will fancy her chances in the skiathlon, but warned that altitude could be a factor.
"The altitude here in Sochi is going to be really difficult, while the course won't be any easier," said Chekaleva referring to the Laura complex which has been dubbed the "Rollercoaster" because of the multiple climbs and descents.
Embedded video_content_type: Cheat Sheet: Cross-country skiing
The men will start their campaign with the skiathlon on Sunday and Northug, who won two world titles in the discipline, will certainly have a target on his back.
"I will stop at nothing because I must be at the top of the podium at the Sochi Olympics," said Northug.
"If I am speaking honestly, I have high expectations. One gold medal will not be enough. I want to win no less than two gold medals."
Northug, who is likely to compete in all six events - from the sprint to the 50-km individual race - could face stiff competition from team mate Martin Johnsrud Sundby, the overall World Cup leader and first Norwegian male to win the prestigious Tour de Ski this season.
Distance specialist Dario Cologna, the 15km Olympic champion, will also be a threat, though the Swiss is only coming back to fitness after missing two months with an ankle injury.
Russia's hopes lie with Nikita Kryukov, the sprint Olympic champion who does not compete in the distance events, and with distance skier Aleksandr Legkov, currently third in the overall World Cup rankings.
Best of Sochi