US is behind in medal count, but USOC isn't worried
By KELLY WHITESIDE | USA Today | Published: February 17, 2014
SOCHI, Russia – Four years ago in Vancouver, the U.S. Olympic team turned in its best performance in history with 37 medals, the most ever won by any nation at a single Winter Games.
With seven days remaining in the Sochi Olympics, the Americans won't come close to matching that record, which is just fine, according to U.S. Olympic Committee CEO Scott Blackmun. Blackmun has high expectations for the team, but he's also pragmatic.
"Vancouver was a once-in-a-lifetime performance by our team," Blackmun told USA TODAY Sports on Sunday. "While that's a good benchmark from an aspirational standpoint, it's not a realistic expectation every time we compete because it was just so special. It was like competing on home soil, our time zone, our culture, our food — it was that combined with the fact that our athletes had a lot of lifetime best performances."
Heading into Day 10 of the Sochi Games, the Netherlands leads the overall medal count with 17. The USA and Russia are tied for second place, each with 16 total medals and four golds. This week U.S. skiing stars Mikaela Shiffrin and Ted Ligety should add to the medal haul, along with Steven Holcomb, the defending Olympic champion in men's four-man bobsled. In figure skating, Meryl Davis and Charlie White are also in position to win gold after leading Sunday's short dance.
But their podium finishes are far from guaranteed. Several favorites have come up empty-handed here, including snowboarder Shaun White, speedskater Shani Davis and Lindsey Jacobellis, who on Sunday failed to advance to the women's snowboardcross final. The heartbreak continues for Jacobellis, who failed to medal in 2010 as the Olympic favorite and famously settled for silver after a showboat move in 2006.
Four years ago in Vancouver, the Americans had 24 medals, including seven golds, at this point of the Games, according to Olympic historian Bill Mallon.
"We never do as well at European Olympics," Mallon said Sunday. Especially a Winter Games.
American dominance on snow and ice is a recent occurrence but as results have improved so have expectations. Blackmun said that heading into the 2002 Salt Lake Games, the USOC hoped the team would win 20 medals; the Americans won 34. At the 2006 Torino Olympics, the Americans finished in second place with 25 medals.
"We are having a great Games for us," Blackmun said. "We have never been the winter powerhouse."
The Americans have won at least one medal every day of these Games. Three nations (Germany, Soviet Union and East Germany) have won a medal on every day of the Winter Olympics before, but the U.S. team has never done it, according to Mallon.
The streak could continue this week with several Americans expected to contend for a medal: including bobsledders Holcomb and Elana Meyers, Shiffrin (slalom) and Ligety (giant slalom), ice dancers Meryl Davis and Charlie White, plus both men's and women's hockey teams. Mallon projects Team USA will win 29 medals.
The U.S. team got off to a rocky start in Sochi, with several stars widely missing the podium last week. White dropped out of the new snowboard slopestyle event and failed to medal in men's halfpipe, an event he's won the last two Games. Davis finished eighth in a race he won at the last two Winter Games.
Alpine skier Bode Miller fell short in the downhill, his best shot at gold, but came back Sunday to take bronze in the super G behind U.S. teammate Andrew Weibrecht. At 36, Miller's tie for bronze means he won't leave Russia without a medal in what is likely his last Games.
"I always feel like I'm capable of winning medals," said Miller, who's planning on racing in Wednesday's giant slalom. "But as you've seen in these Olympics, it's not that easy."
Even though some stars failed to live up to expectations, others emerged, including three surprise gold medalists: slopestyle snowboarders Sage Kotsenburg and Jamie Anderson and slopestyle freeskier Joss Christensen. Erin Hamlin, who became the first American woman to win an Olympic medal (bronze) in her sport, and skeleton slider Matt Antoine (bronze) were other unexpected medalists. Weibrecht, who won silver in the men's super G on Sunday, also was a surprise.
The 12 medals won by freeskiers, snowboarders and Alpine skiers helped offset struggles in speedskating and men's figure skating. The American men weren't expected to do much in Sochi; but the team's worst finish since 1936 wasn't expected either. Speedskating touts itself as the USA's most successful winter sport, but both short and long track skaters have yet to win a medal.
The introduction of new events, including slopestyle skiing and snowboarding, has helped boost America's medal total. The Americans have traditionally excelled in new sports, Mallon said. The success in slopestyle is expected to increase the sport's popularity back home.
"As you look at what kids are doing, there's been a move from tradition away from skiing and into snowboarding," Blackmun said. "But if you look at the slopestyle (freeski) compeition and those three guys on the podium, I have a feeling it's going to be popular to get back on skis again in the United States."
After a dismal performance in Vancouver, Russia is rebounding. Russia already has one more medal than it did at the entire 2010 Games. With 15-year-old Julia Lipnitskaia a medal threat in women's figure skating, starting Wednesday, the home team has shined, winning gold in the new team event and most significantly in pairs. In a country known for its ballet and theater, figure skating combines both, along with power and grace.
As American pairs skater Simon Shnapir, who was born in Russia, put it, "Figure skating is in their blood." So is hockey.
After losing to the USA on Saturday in an eight-round shootout, Russia followed up that thriller with a 1-0 shootout win over Slovakia on Sunday. "Overall we've played well. Everybody wants to beat Russia at home," said Russian forward Alex Ovechkin, the star of the Washington Capitals. "It's the Olympic Games; nobody wants to make mistakes."
All but one of the Netherlands' 17 medals have been won in speedskating. The16 speedskating medals won by the Dutch has already broken the previous record of 13 set by East Germany at the 1988 Calgary Olympics. And with favorites in three of the last four events, they will shatter that record this week. All by themselves, the Dutch skaters put their tiny country atop the medal table in Sochi.
Given Russia doesn't offer the same comforts of home, in language and culture, as Vancouver did, an American medal dip was expected. Even so, other than the time difference – 12 hours ahead of the West Coast – there are less challenges than expected, Blackmun said.
"The truth is the Russians have done a fantastic job," he said, citing the Olympic Village, transportation and food. "The security is not intrusive. We expected to face a lot of challenges but that hasn't surfaced.
"The athletes have been very well taken care of."
Russian President Vladimir Putin even dropped in on the USOC's headquarters at the Olympic Park on Friday. "We certainly didn't talk about anything other than sport," Blackmun said Sunday. "Within the context of sport, he was very, very gracious. We didn't lay down any challenge about hockey games. He generally wanted to know if we were happy with the way things were going."
Which, at the moment, are pretty good from Blackmun's perspective.