SOCHI, Russia — In 1992, the first year I covered a Winter Olympics, the United States won five gold medals in Albertville. All five were won by women, two of them by speedskating legend Bonnie Blair.
This was a bad thing for America. How could we make a big deal out of winter sports, a lucrative quadrennial TV spectacle, if our athletes weren’t any good and if our men kept getting their butts kicked by Austrians and Norwegians?
It was a major issue for the United States Olympic Committee. After a similarly poor effort in Calgary, they had assembled a committee of prominent people to find solutions to our great national crisis.
George Steinbrenner was a driving force, which naturally meant encouraging the business community to throw more money at the problem.
More money helped, of course. But the real answer was simple: Urge the IOC to add more sports – specifically, more of the cutting-edge sports that appealed to the young, upper-middle class U.S. demographic and attracted eyeballs and television ratings.
It worked. Two decades later, the Winter Olympics has become largely an extension of the X Games, the salvation of a nation that struggles to produce champions in sports that involve skiing great distances through the woods, or off the side of a mountain.
“In the USA, to do sports like cross country and biathlon, which are not as popular as the Super Bowl, takes dedication,” said Alan Ashley, the USOC chief for sports performance.
As we approached the midpoint of the Sochi Games on Friday, the U.S. was at the top of the charts with 13 medals (four gold), tied with Norway and one up on the Netherlands and Russia. See, the Americans really can hold our own with those traditional winter sports powers!
Well, thank the norse gods for the extreme sports — and a nod of gratitude to the IOC for continuing to add new sports to the program.
Of those 13 medals, 10 were in events that didn’t exist in the ’92 Games in Albertville. Seven were in sports that were added this year. Six of them were in slopestyle events (ski and snowboard), where dudes and chicks navigate a gnarly course of rails, boxes and jumps.
Joss Christensen, Gus Kenworthy and Nick Goepper swept the first-ever men’s slopestyle skiing competition, striking a blow for our male winter athletes. From what I’m told, Kenworthy has inspired quite an avid following among the young female viewership, too.
Sage Kotsenburg had me stoked after winning the men’s snowboard slopestyle. But that’s it. Four medals for the men, all of them in slopestyle. If it doesn’t involve sliding on a rail or flipping over three or four times in the air, America is second-rate in these Games.
In Winter events that did not exist 20 years ago, the U.S. men had zero medals of any color as of Friday night. It was Albertville all over again. That includes men’s figure skating, where our guys contributed to a team bronze but fell apart as usual in the men’s singles competition.
It has not been an auspicious week for our non-extreme Olympians. I’ve been known to tease the Sabres about the “heroic run to eighth place.” That could be the theme of the American effort here:
Bode Miller, eighth in the downhill; Shani Davis, eighth in the 1000-meter speedskating; Jessica Diggins, eighth in the 7.5 kilometer cross country classic; Brittany Bowe, eighth in 1,000-meter speedskate; Heather Richardson, eighth in 500-meter speedskating.
Shaun White finished fourth on the halfpipe, for heaven’s sake. I could go on and on, but you get the point. The medal count says the U.S. is doing just fine, but there’s a lot of underachieving going on.
Ted Ligety, who was supposed to assert himself as the great American alpine skier, finished 12th in the Super Combined. I’m going to be honest here. I’m not even sure what the Super Combined entails. It sounds to me like an order at Mighty Taco.
“To put it simply, I choked – for sure,” Ligety said. “That’s disappointing.”
Well, at least someone said it. All this gagging makes me fearful for the men’s hockey team, which rode Ryan Miller to a silver medal four years ago in Vancouver. It figures, the Americans have a proven Winter Olympic hero and they put him on the bench.
But things are bound to get better. It’s only a matter of time before the IOC adds the slopestyle relay and team halfpipe to the Games.