SOCHI, Russia -- There are few bigger honors for an Olympian than being asked to carry your nation's flag in the opening ceremony -- especially when your country is playing host.
Still, two-time Olympic medalist Alexander Zubkov, Russia's top bobsled driver, nearly refused the job.
"I said I wanted to think it over, consult my family and especially my wife," he said. "I also talked to the boys on my team. Some of them are superstitious and there is a belief that if you carry the flag you won't win."
In the end and with his team's blessing, Zubkov accepted the honor. His hesitation shows just how much a gold medal here would mean.
With the two-man bobsled competition beginning Sunday, Zubkov, 39, posted strong times in his first five training runs this week at the Sanki Sliding Center. He has spent the past two years preparing for this moment, taking more runs on this course than any other top-ranked driver in the world.
His familiarity with the track will be a definite advantage, but it might not be enough. He has failed to make the podium at recent competitions, finishing seventh in two-man at the 2013 world championships and fifth at the 2013 European championships with brakeman Dmitry Trunenkov.
"It will be a tough race," Zubkov said. "The top six will fight until the last moment. This race will judge us all."
Zubkov's strongest challenges are expected to come from the German sleds, which won gold and silver in Vancouver four years ago, and U.S. pilot Steve Holcomb, who is currently ranked No. 1 in the world.
Holcomb, who drove the American four-man sled to Olympic gold in 2010, has worked with the U.S. skeleton and luge teams to help figure out the track, which has 17 curves and three uphill sections. He finished second in both his training heats Saturday.
"It is very confusing, you see some sleds hit in places and it doesn't slow them down and others will have a good-looking run and are slow," Holcomb said. "There is not much that I can do now, we are racing (Sunday) and I am just going to drive the lines that I have been driving."
U.S. pilots Nick Cunningham and Cory Butner also will compete, but they are not expected to medal.
"No one can tell you who will win. It will be a hard competition for everybody," Zubkov said. "Those who deliver consistently the best results are most likely to take victory."
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