SOCHI, Russia – The United States Olympic Committee held its closing news conference here Saturday afternoon. Not surprisingly, the USOC leaders put the best possible spin on these Winter Games.
They started by introducing Julie Chu, the four-time member of the U.S. women’s silver-medal winning hockey team, as the athletes’ choice to carry the American flag in tonight’s closing ceremony.
Chu is a perfect choice, an irrepressibly upbeat woman who was a leader and unofficial den mother for the hockey team. She gushed over the hockey venues, the volunteers, the other athletes. She talked about Title IX and the climb toward gender equity in American sport.
“Hopefully, watching all these strong women be able to compete will inspire young girls to pick up a sport,” Chu said. “We need to put out images of strong, confident women for our youth – not only our girls, but for our young boys to be able to respect the girls as well.”
Listening to Chu, who should be an inspiration to male and female athletes all over the world, you almost felt guilty finding things to criticize about the U.S. effort during this Winter Olympiad.
But you know sportswriters. It hasn’t all been rosy for the Americans. Yes, the U.S. total of 27 overall medals through Saturday’s events is second only to Russia’s 29. But the USOC heads fielded some tough questions about some of the failures here.
The U.S. didn’t get a medal in three traditional figure skating disciplines – pairs and men’s and women’s singles, the nation’s worst showing since 1936.
The two medals, thanks to Charlie White and Meryl Davis, were in ice dancing and the new team event.
The speedskaters were an utter embarrassment. They didn’t get a medal in the first 17 events. A silver in the men’s 5,000-meter relay on Friday saved them from a total washout. Every aspect of the operation is being questioned: their suits, their training, their choice of breakfast cereal, you name it.
“We’re not the only nation that got smoked by the Netherlands,” said Scott Blackmun, chief executive officer of the USOC. “In terms of what happened, we’re fairly confident it was not the suits. We want to take a look at it after the Games and help find some answers.”
The 27 overall medals were 10 shy of the record 37 four years earlier in Vancouver. But as the USOC guys reminded the media three times, those 27 are the most medals the U.S. has ever won in a Winter Olympics outside North America.
I’m not sure why that’s such a critical distinction, but if you’re looking to spin the positive, you do what you can. Canada is doing pretty well for itself; the last I checked, they were part of North America. Is the U.S. already making excuses for Pyeongchang in 2018?
Competing away from the home continent certainly didn’t hurt the U.S. extreme sports athletes. They’ve had a knockout Games. Americans have a combined 10 medals – including five of the country’s nine overall golds – in slopestyle, halfpipe or snowboard cross events.
The men’s and women’s ski and snowboard slopestyle events were in the Olympics for the first time. So were men’s and women’s ski halfpipe and the snowboard parallel slalom.
“One thing for sure is we had a lot of success with the new events here in Sochi,” said Alan Ashley, the USOC chief for sports performance. And there could be more extreme sports coming soon.
“I can’t tell you for sure where we’re going to end up four years from now,” Ashley said. “We don’t control that. But I’m encouraged by what’s going on here, and I would love us to look at new opportunities. They’re exciting, they bring new athletes in and keep the Winter Games evolving in a very positive way.”
Extreme sports also do well on TV, one reason the ratings are high for these Games.
“People back home are watching in record numbers,” Blackmun said. “I heard 2.1 million watched this on NBC’s live stream, which is just fantastic.”
People are watching. The extreme sports play well on the tube. Kids see their heroes on the halfpipe and slopestyle course and want to grow up to be just like them. As Chu said, it doesn’t matter if it’s a new sport, it’s whether it inspires kids to dream.
The Olympics will continue to evolve. You can’t stop progress. Blackmun said it’s time to get skateboarding in the Summer Olympics. He also put in a welcome plug for the IOC to put women’s softball back in the Games.
One questioner pointed out that the U.S. hasn’t done much better in the “traditional” sports than they did 26 years ago in Calgary, when the Americans finished with an embarrassing six medals.
Ashley said he’s not concerned with that. He pointed out that the U.S. has five medals in alpine skiing. Mikaela Shiffrin says she’s shooting for five medals alone four years from now. Ashley said global competition in all sports is getting tougher.
“The whole level of competition across the world, the diversity of medals and performers is growing,” Ashley said. “It’s a great thing for sports and for the Olympic movement. It makes it more fun for all of us. That’s what competition is all about.”