By Justin Palmer
(Reuters) - Steve Holcomb broke Germany's stranglehold on men's bobsleigh when he piloted the American four-man team to Olympic gold four years ago, the first for the U.S. since 1948, but faces a tough battle to defend his title.
Holcomb won the first three four-man races in the U.S. but has been unable to maintain the flying start since the circuit switched to Europe, and has been surpassed in the overall standings by German Maximilian Arndt, the world champion, and Russian Alexander Zubkov.
The American is also among the favorite to land two-man gold but told Reuters that the Sanki Sliding Centre track, located near Krasnaya Polyana, was technical but not as fast as Whistler.
"It's easier to get down, you're not going to have a lot of crashes but the problem is it's not easy to get down quickly," he said.
"It's a little bit of a disadvantage to me and the other experienced drivers. Whistler separated the experienced drivers from the less experienced drivers... if you look at the (2010) results, all drivers that had been around for a long time were on the podium."
The track has three slightly uphill sections to reduce speed
with the safety of competitors paramount in the design after Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili died after crashing during a training run in Whistler.
Holcomb's 2010 triumph ended a run of four successive German golds in the four-man bob stretching back to Lillehammer in 1994 - denying the now-retired Andre Lange, the most successful bobsleigh pilot of all time, a podium sweep in both disciplines.
Kevin Kuske, 35, partnered Lange to four Olympic victories, and now competes with Thomas Florschuetz, who won a silver in the two-man four years ago.
Arndt, who will be taking part in his first Olympics, has hit form at the right time and represents Germany's best medal hope while five-times World Cup winner Zubkov, 39, is certain to be a strong podium contender in what will undoubtedly be his last Games.
Zubkov, who competed in luge at the start of his career, won a silver in the four-man in Turin in 2006, and then after securing a bronze in the two-man in 2010 announced his retirement before coming back to the sport months later.
Switzerland have not won bobsleigh gold since Gustavo Weder took the two-man title in Lillehammer 20 years ago and the consistent Beat Hefti will look to end that drought.
The return of the Jamaica to Olympic bobsled after a 12-year absence will once again conjure memories of their debut at the 1988 Games and the film that told their story - Cool Runnings.
Dubbed the "hottest thing on ice", Jamaica will once again be the plucky underdogs with Winston Watts, 46, likely to become a national hero after coming out of retirement to pilot the two-man team.
The battle for women's bobsleigh gold will likely be between Canada, the United States and Germany.
Olympic and world champion Kaillie Humphries of Canada has been reunited this season with Heather Moyse, her gold-winning brakewoman who has made her comeback to the track after a three-year break.
The pair have clicked again during the World Cup season but Humphries said Sochi would be a big challenge.
"It's completely different from Vancouver or a lot of tracks we've been on," she said. "It has three uphill sections, which is brand new for I'd say 98 percent of people on tour."
The U.S. will mount a strong challenge to their northern neighbors' with drivers Elana Meyers, Jamie Greubel and Jazmine Fenlator leading contenders for gold.
Interest, however, will just as much focus on the girls pushing the American sleds with London Olympics track gold medallist Lauryn Williams and former hurdling world champion Lolo Jones set to join an elite group of athletes to represent their country at the Summer and Winter Games.
(Editing by Julien Pretot)