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Olympics

Expect northern exposure as usual suspects crowd medals

By Kevin Fylan

VANCOUVER (Reuters) - Athletes from North America and northern Europe should haul in the bulk of medals in Vancouver, even if Lindsey Vonn's shin injury ends up spoiling U.S. hopes of an Olympics gold rush.

Gaining a place in the left-hand column of a Winter Olympics medals table means entering an exclusive club.

Just 18 nations came away from Turin with gold in 2006 and few if any experts expect the number to be much higher in Vancouver, after Games that begin with the opening ceremony on Friday.

Economist Daniel Johnson, who claims an accuracy rate of over 90 percent in medals predictions, expects the usual suspects to crowd the top of the medals standings.

Johnson believes Russia will lead all nations with eight gold medals, followed by Germany with seven and the United States and Canada with five each.

The consolation for Canada, he predicts, will be in winning the highest total number of medals with a combined 27 gold, silver and bronze, followed by the United States and Norway.

With the Games looming, he stands by that order, although he now believes the final figures will probably be higher.

"It does look a little low," Johnson, an economics professor at Colorado College, told Reuters by telephone on Thursday. "I think that might be a function of the new sports that have been included. Our totals lag behind -- just a hair."

WISTFUL THINKING

Vonn's arrival in Vancouver with a badly bruised right shin means the prospect of claiming five gold medals appears less likely than ever. She also crashed in four years ago in Turin, where she was also a contender for gold.

If the 25-year-old is not in top shape, Maria Riesch of Germany will be among the Europeans poised to take advantage.

The United States won nine golds in Turin four years ago, putting them in second spot behind Germany, which won 11.

Twice before Canada has hosted Olympics, the 1976 Montreal Summer Games and the Calgary Winter Games in 1988, but have yet to celebrate a gold medal victory on home soil.

That will surely change this time. The host country's first gold medal could come on Saturday, which is the first full day of competition, by either Manuel Osborne-Paradis in the men's Alpine skiing downhill or freestyle moguls skier Jenn Heil.

If not, home advantage is likely to be a huge help in events like ice hockey, although Russia, among others, will provide stiff competition there.

If this is not to be the Vonn-couver Games, there appears to be few athletes capable of dominating the Olympics in the style of U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps or Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt in Beijing.

Red-haired Olympic halfpipe champion snowboarder Shaun White of the United State will draw plenty of attention, particularly if he pulls off his latest gravity-defying trick, the "Double McTwist 12."

American speed skaters Shani Davis and Apolo Anton Ohno also have the star quality every Games needs.

EYES OF THE WORLD

Other nations with strong hopes of gold include Winter Games powerhouse Austria, for whom ski jumper Gregor Schlierenzauer may become a household name, and Norway, with biathlete Ole Einar Bjorndalen eager to win back the golds he lost in Turin.

The popularity of South Korea's 19-year-old Kim Yuna will only increase as the eyes of the world turn toward her in the figure skating.

Japanese duo Miki Ando and Mao Asada are also among the favorites, while China's Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo are a strong bet in the pairs.

Curiously, the man who is so convinced that his predictions on the top-medalling nations are right, would like to be proved wrong.

"I'm as confident as I ever am but I would love to be wrong," Johnson said. "I would love to see a great upset with athletes from Africa and the Caribbean winning but I know the probability is low."

(Editing by Frank Pingue)