By Steve Keating
SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - The Canadian gold medal favorites have their game-faces on and the wacky Norwegians will be wearing their outrageous pants as curling joins the Sochi Olympic action on Monday.
Curling joined the official program in 1998 and has grown from fringe sport to Olympic mainstay and one of the Games more intriguing and popular events.
Part of curling's unique charm is that the athletes competing for medals are, for the most part, true amateurs, men and women with full-time jobs who play for the love of their sport.
Thomas Ulsrud's Norwegian foursome, silver medal winners at the 2010 Winter Games, are back and promising even more of the quirky fashions that turned them into instant celebrities in Vancouver but it is Canadian rinks skipped by Brad Jacobs and Jennie Jones that start as favorites to sweep Olympic gold.
Since curling was added to the Olympic lineup Canadian rinks have won medals at each edition in both the men's and women's competitions.
On the men's side, Canada took silver in Nagano and Salt Lake City and gold in Turin and Vancouver.
The torch has now been passed to Jacobs, who will try to skip Canada to a third straight gold in Sochi, while Jones will bid to put the Canadian women on top of the podium for the first time since the 1998 Nagano Olympics and end a run of silver and bronze medal finishes.
The Canadian men have won a record 15 consecutive Olympic matches, a string of success that stretches back to the 2006 Turin Winter Games and a loss to Italy in the round robin.
"Gold is the mission," said Jacobs, who will see his rink open up against Germany on Monday. "Anything less than gold we will all be disappointed.
"A medal at the Olympic Games is obviously phenomenal but gold is what we are going for.
"Gold is what we want."
Niklas Edin's Swedish foursome may not be as flashy as the Norwegians but will fancy their gold medal chances having beaten Jacobs rink on their home ice in Victoria, British Columbia to win the world championship.
Britain will not lack for experience in their push for a podium with two-time world champion skip David Murdoch joining forces with Tom Brewster's rink to form a Scottish dream team that flashed their potential with a bronze medal placing at last year's worlds.
In the women's draw, Anette Norberg, who skipped Sweden to back-to-back gold in Turin and Vancouver, will not be in Sochi, leaving it to Margaretha Sigfridsson's European championship rink to make it three in a row for the 'Tre Kronor'.
World champion Eve Muirhead and her Scottish foursome could be Britain's best shot at Sochi gold while China will look for a return to the podium following a breakthrough bronze in Vancouver.
"We love pressure as a team, if you have a chance to come in as world champions or come in as mid-table you know who you are going to pick and that's world champions," said Muirhead.
"I think one thing that is good about that is we know how to win major championships.
"Everyone's goal is to get that Olympic medal, it is the one medal we are missing and we will do absolutely anything for it."
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)