Olympics: Snowboarders to launch Sochi gold rush

SOCHI, Russia (REUTERS) - Action in the Winter Olympics starts in earnest on Saturday with five gold medals up for grabs, opening with the new Games discipline of snowboard slopestyle and concluding around midnight with the floodlit women's moguls.

Canadian Maxence Parrot is favourite to take the first gold of the Games in snowboard slopestyle after American Shaun White withdrew claiming the course was too dangerous.

Slopestyle, which has similarities to skateboarding, is one of the events introduced to help spread the Games' appeal to a younger television audience.

Dutch speedskater Sven Kramer, expected to become one of the faces of the Games, is favourite to retain his 5,000 metres title in what should be an atmospheric afternoon in the indoor Adler Arena.

Norwegian Marit Bjoergen, the most successful athlete of the 2010 Games with five medals, including three golds, faces tough competition from her compatriot Therese Johaug on the slopes in the cross-country skiathlon.

American Hannah Kearney is another Vancouver 2010 winner looking well placed to repeat that success after she topped qualifying for the women's moguls final.

In the biathlon sprint, Frenchman Martin Fourcade will start as the favourite but he will face stern competition from Norwegian Emil Hegle Svendsen, the sprint and pursuit world champion.

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