Though relative unknowns in the U.S. at this point, these athletes will very likely become water-cooler fodder during the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, which kick off next week.
Petter Northug, Norway, Cross-Country Skiing
Petter Northug is on a mission. Northug wasn't chosen for the 2006 Olympic team — a team that failed to win a cross-country gold medal (which is totally unacceptable in Norway). So four years later, he's heading to Vancouver with Nordic vengeance on his mind.
Northug's trademark, end-of-race kick earned him one of his three gold medals at last year's world championships. The man with the big finish has generated big hopes in Norway; some say the 24-year-old could be the next Bjorn Daehlie, the Norwegian cross-country legend who has won more medals than anyone in Winter Olympics history.
And Northug has a big personality, too. No stoic Scandinavian here: Northug has been called a showman, a jokester and a trash talker by rivals.
Wang Bingyu, China, Women's Curling
Also known by her nickname, "Betty," Wang Bingyu is the star of the women's curling team. China is hardly a hotbed of the sport of sliding stones, but the Chinese women grabbed a world championship in 2009 and now could challenge the traditional powers, Sweden and host country Canada.
Maggie Rauch, editor of the Web site China Sports Today, says China has taken to the curling champions. They're part of a post-Tiananmen Square generation often criticized or being spoiled and rebellious. But Rauch says Betty and the gang are portrayed differently.
"I think they've been sort of held up as an example of four girls that are part of this generation that are enjoying life in the new China and are doing it in a very approachable, joyful sort of way," she says.
For instance, Bingyu likes to sing. She was asked to do so in a televised interview, and she complied, with a happy love song called Nuan Nuan (Warm Warm).
Oksana Domnina And Maxim Shabalin, Russia, Ice Dancing
Of course what would a gathering of nations be without tension, and Russian skaters Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin have provided that with their controversial Olympic ice dancing program. Dressed in brown body suits and wearing leaves and face paint, the pair created a routine intended as a dance of Australian Aborigines. It didn't work. Stephen Page, artistic director for the Australian Bangarra Dance Theatre, thought the routine was disrespectful.
"Well, you just have to have a look at how they looked. I believe now that we just tend to ... just bastardize any form of culture," he says.
The skaters defend their program and plan to perform it in Vancouver — at an Olympics that's notable for being the first to have a formal partnership between the host country organizers and indigenous groups.