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Rivalry weekend at Winter Games

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — It’s Rivalry Weekend at the Vancouver Olympics.

Last time the Winter Games were held in Canada, the big head-to-head matchups were in figure skating. Now they’re in hockey, and Sunday’s final day of the men’s preliminary round features rematches of the last three gold medal games. It starts with Russia and the Czech Republic on NBC, then MSNBC will carry the next two games — the United States against Canada and Sweden facing Finland.

“Every game we play against them — whether it’s an exhibition or in a tournament — versus the Swedes, those are huge games,” Finland’s Sami Salo said.

The Sweden-Finland game starts about 24 hours after a curling match between gold-medal contenders Canada and Britain, and it will cap a weekend that also includes another clash between Apolo Anton Ohno and his friends from South Korea.

Rivalries are as much a part of the Olympics as medals and the torch, and two of the best were on display in the 1988 figure skating competition in Calgary. American Brian Boitano won the gold medal in the “Battle of the Brians” against the host country’s big hope, Brian Orser.

That same year, East Germany’s Katerina Witt and American Debi Thomas both skated to “Carmen” on the women’s side. Witt won the gold, and Thomas settled for bronze.

This year’s women’s competition could come down to South Korea’s Kim Yu-na and Japan’s Mao Asada. They’ve been battling it out since they were juniors. Kim took the world championship last year, and Asada the year before. Their short program is Tuesday.

In men’s curling, Canada and Scotland have combined to win the last five world titles, and the Canada-Britain matchup in round-robin play Saturday night was billed as a possible championship game preview. Saturday also featured a short track speedskating appearance by Ohno, which always stirs passions in South Korea. The American won Olympic gold in 2002 when a Korean was disqualified, and he’s been reviled on the peninsula ever since.

Also Saturday, Shani Davis and Chad Hedrick competed against each other on the long track. The American speedskaters openly feuded during the 2006 Games, although relations have thawed since.

The most anticipated matchups, though, are the hockey games — at least in Canada, where a loss to the U.S. is the last thing the host country needs before the start of the medal round.

This is the first big U.S.-Canada matchup in men’s hockey since Canada beat the Americans in 2002 to win Olympic gold on U.S. soil.

And that rivalry is positively friendly compared to the one between Czechs and Russians. Czech star Jaromir Jagr wears No. 68 on his jersey — as in 1968, the year the Soviet military crushed a liberal movement in Czechoslovakia. From 1963-79, the Soviet Union won every Olympic gold medal and 14 of 17 world championships. The Czechs were the only team to interrupt that run, winning world titles in ’72, ’76 and ’77.

Governments and country names have changed since, and Jagr even plays professionally in Russia now, but make no mistake, this game is still a big one.

“Czechoslovakia against Russia was always a big war on the ice,” Czech defenseman Jan Hejda said. “I can’t say nobody likes Russia, but it’s 40 years of occupation. That’s still there.”

The Czech Republic edged Russia for the 1998 Olympic gold.

Sweden beat neighboring Finland 3-2 for the 2006 gold medal, and their last seven Olympic meetings have been decided by a goal or less.

Aside from the hockey games, Sunday’s big television highlight might be the Olympic debut of skicross, a variation on the always-entertaining snowboardcross. NBC will air skicross in prime time, along with Bode Miller’s next event, the Alpine super-combined.

Skicross is sort of like NASCAR on skis. Racers barrel down the hill four at a time, jostling for position as they vault over mounds and make banked turns.

In fact, the sport is borrowing a bit from NASCAR in hopes of making it more fan friendly. Several riders have been asked to wear cameras during competition to give viewers a taste of what it looks like in traffic.

“Anything to help move the sport forward and give it some publicity,” Canadian skier Stanley Hayer said.