6 things to watch for during the 2018 Winter Olympics

Experts discuss women's hockey, cross-country skiing, Russian athletes, being a host with a volatile neighbour, momentum for a Calgary Olympic bid and more.

As the 2018 Winter Olympic Games kick off today in PyeongChang, South Korea, the sporting drama set to unfold over the next 17 days will happen amid a backdrop of the saga of banned Russian athletes, an unpredictable neighbour and a notable lack of NHL hockey players.

To help sort out the implications of these questions, as well as the impact these Games may have on a potential Calgary bid, and more, University of Alberta experts share their thoughts on what Canadians should watch for.

Will Canadian female Olympians continue to outpace their male counterparts for medals?

The stage is set, sports history professor Stacy Lorenz of Augustana Campus believes, for the country's female Olympians to once again shine on the podium. Since 2006, Canadian women have contributed 44 of Canada's 75 Olympic winter medals, he noted, while Canadian men have been part of 34 medals (three shared in figure skating). At the 2016 Summer Olympics, Canadian female athletes outperformed their male counterparts by a margin of 16 to six in terms of medal success.

"The one place where women's sports get almost as much attention and carry similar cultural weight to men's sports is the Olympics." Ideally, he added, the Games should be a springboard for more widespread media coverage-and higher pay for female athletes.

"In part, Canada can pat itself on the back for providing more resources and opportunities for female athletes than other countries do. However, it's also the case that Canada specifically targets funding for women's Olympic sports where officials feel there is a greater opportunity for success, because the depth of competition is seen to be not as strong as in men's sports. At the same time, there's an argument that Canadian women succeed in Olympic sport precisely because it is almost always the pinnacle of female sport. Male athletes have so many other professional options and more chances to make big money in comparison to women, that they may not pursue Olympic sports to the same degree."

Will Canada win its first-ever medal in men's cross-country skiing?

"Canada is a winter sport country, but we've never won a men's cross-country skiing medal," Lorenz noted.

The country's best hope, he said, is Alex Harvey. Canada's most successful men's cross-country skier, Harvey is a five-time medallist at the FIS World Championships and has more than 25 World Cup podium finishes. A medal for Harvey might increase funding for training more talent, and may also inspire a new generation of Canadian skiers, he believes.

"If Canada truly wants to be a winter sports powerhouse, the country needs to improve in events like cross-country skiing and biathlon-events in which Canada traditionally has not performed well but where there are many medal opportunities. These sports have such strong cultural currency and financial resources in countries like Norway, Sweden and Russia that it makes it extremely difficult for Canadians to reach the podium. For example, Beckie Scott's gold medal in 2002 was the first time a North American woman won any medal in cross-country skiing."

Will women's Olympic hockey gather more interest now that NHL players are no longer competing in the men's arena?

These Games are the first since 1994 to exclude current NHL hockey players, and that could make more room in the spotlight for female hockey players or athletes from lower-profile Olympic sports like skiing, speed skating and luge, said Lorenz.

"It's a perfect opportunity to talk about something different, and if Canada does do well-and that's the expectation after four consecutive gold medals-media may find a way to generate more interest."

But, he added, it's likely that interest in the men's competition will still be high.

"Men's Olympic hockey has always been a measuring stick of Canadian greatness and it's been the marquee event for Canadians for the past 20 years. There will likely be viewer interest and media commentary on the unique paths taken by some of those team members following their NHL careers or through various European leagues, so I predict men's hockey will receive a disproportionate share of coverage. And if the Canadian men perform poorly, it will be a chance to talk about why the NHL chose not to come to these Games."

Could the morale and performance of other Olympic athletes suffer, given that lifetime bans for Russian Olympians for doping were overturned?

The Court of Arbitration for Sport overturned the suspensions of 28 Russians for illegal doping, and partially upheld 11 other appeals. Psychology plays a role in how athletes react to that kind of disappointment, said Billy Strean, a professor with the Faculty of Kinesiology, Sport, and Recreation.

"An event like the overturning of bans can really be a distraction. Some athletes might get upset about it; others might be able to use it to fuel their own conviction to do well. Sport psychologists often work with athletes to help them focus on factors they can control, such as their own performance. In sports, as with everywhere in life, being able to accept what is so allows for more peace of mind, and more energy and attention for the matter at hand."

Will the fact that the Winter Games are being held next door to a volatile country-North Korea-affect attendance by tourists?

Tensions with North Korea may keep some tourists away but relations between the two countries have noticeably thawed recently . "It's been fairly positive in terms of co-operation between North Korea and South Korea," said Tom Hinch, a professor of sport and tourism in the Faculty of Kinesiology, Sport, and Recreation.

Usually, the bigger challenge for Olympic destination countries is retaining tourists who come for the Games. Sydney, Australia, did a good job of leveraging its 2000 Summer Olympics for long-distance travellers, but normally, it's a struggle, he said.

"The people attending the Games are focused on the sport event, so they don't tend to be as interested in some of the ancillary things like museums or other tourist attractions. They are usually corporate members, family or friends, or sport spectator fanatics. They're busy and single-minded, so they'll tend to go to the event and then get home."

While it's unclear how many travellers will come to PyeongChang from Europe or North America, any gap could filled by the large neighbouring populations in nearby Japan and China, Hinch noted.

"It depends on their interest in Olympic sport and their sense of security in South Korea."

Will the 2018 Winter Olympics create momentum in favour of a Calgary Olympic bid for 2026, or will these Games make a Calgary bid less likely?

"The story of the last two Games in Sochi and Rio had a significant number of negative elements: corruption and cost overruns, economic challenges, human rights questions in Russia and the destruction of local communities in the name of Olympic construction in Rio," Lorenz said. As well, the growing economic and social costs of the Games made cities like Oslo and Stockholm withdraw their bids for the 2022 Olympics.

So, he wonders, will the narrative that emerges about the 2018 Olympics focus on their positive impact on South Korea and a strong performance by Canadian athletes, or will the story be one of high costs, political division, drug scandals and subpar athletic performances? "What happens in PyeongChang could have a significant impact on the fate of the Calgary Olympic bid," he said.