NAGANO, Japan - Forget the ceremonies designed to extol the glories of sport. Ignore the winter wonderland settings.
In the end, the Winter Olympics are about rivalries.
There will be no star turns when the world's greatest skiers, skaters and sledders put on the 16-day show that begins with an opening ceremony televised Friday night in the United States. Here, medals will be won and lost in a blink of an eye, the flash of a camera.
And it's the athletes - pushing one another - who will create the great moments that define the Games.
Friendship is the guiding spirit of the Olympics, as athletes from every corner of the earth converge in one place, in one stadium, to celebrate the ideal that sports can transcend all of the world's problems.
But what are sports without rivalry?
Brian Boitano won the gold in men's figure skating in 1988 for the United States, but it was Canada's Brian Orser who pushed him along in a competitive chase that lasted through most of their careers. Rivalry didn't divide them - it created them, sustained them, and ultimately brought them together for a night of sublime skating. Afterward, Boitano said: "I almost felt guilty feeling great."
Sometimes the Olympics can transform rivalry into history. Remember 1980? The Cold War flared when the United States beat hockey's Big Red Machine, the Soviet Union, in the "Miracle on Ice" in Lake Placid, N.Y. This was a rivalry, pure and simple, forged by geopolitics yet burnished by old-fashioned virtues such as heart and teamwork.
And sometimes the Games can turn rivalry into farce - or worse. Remember 1994? At the U.S. championships, skater Nancy Kerrigan got whacked on her knee in an attack engineered by a bunch of toughs associated with her American rival, Tonya Harding. Sport had turned into thuggery. And for what? A medal? A contract endorsement? A measure of fleeting fame?
Even in an age saturated with instant sports stars and celebrities - so-called heroes - there is still money to be made out of becoming an Olympic champion. Yet this is not some dash for cash in a bid to pile up prize money and endorsements. An Olympic medal still stands apart in the minds of fans and athletes.
So, here's to the rivalries, the ones to watch, to celebrate, and to savor.
Elvis Stojko vs. Todd Eldredge
(men's figure skating)
The men's figure skating title won't be decided until the Canadian Elvis leaves the building. Stojko is a three-time world champion and reigning Olympic silver medalist who uses martial arts moves and a quadruple jump to bull his way past judges who remain unmoved by his artistry.
Eldredge, the five-time American champion who also has a world title, is a graceful performer and a throwback in a sport of triple-jumping technicians. Yet in his bid to win the gold, he promises to revamp his technical program, and may even beef up his long program by unleashing skating's latest party trick, the quad.
United States vs. Canada
(men's and women's hockey)
Goodbye miracles, and hello dream teams, as National Hockey League stars and women's players turn the hockey tournament upside down.
Despite the new look, this much is certain: The United States against Canada is the marquee match in both the men's and women's divisions.
The American men have Brian Leetch, Brett Hull and Mike Richter. The Canadians counter with Eric Lindros, Ray Borque and the Great One, Wayne Gretzky. Last summer, the Americans shoved around the Canadians to claim hockey's World Cup. In response, the Canadians bolstered their roster with younger, swifter players adept at covering the larger international rink.
"We're close neighbors," said U.S. coach Ron Wilson of the Washington Capitals. "They're losing NHL franchises to us. We won the World Cup. They have a little bit of an inferiority complex. Now they'll be disappointed if the U.S. isn't in the finals against them."
If either team falters, the reigning champion Swedes could swoop in to claim the gold.
In the women's event, the attention will focus on the game's two great players - and teams - Haley Wickenheiser of Canada and Cammi Granato of the United States. Canada is the reigning world champion, but it's the Americans who emerged with a victory in the recent 3 Nations Cup.
"We recognize there's a lot of pressure out there, and the expectations are gold," Canadian coach Shannon Miller told the Calgary Sun.
Chris Witty vs. Franziska Schenk
America's "new Bonnie Blair" sure doesn't look - or act - like the old one. She has a pierced navel, a Notre Dame Fighting Irish tattoo on her hip, listens to Prodigy and yearns to own a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. But like Blair, who sprinted to Olympic speed skating glory, Witty sure is fast on a long track. She won the 1996 World Sprint title and is the record holder at 1,000 meters.