United States, once an Olympics weakling, now a behemoth

By Gary D’Amato/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — The U.S. Olympic team won 37 medals at the Vancouver Games, an all-time record for the Winter Olympics, and seems poised to carry that success to Russia in 2014.

It wasn’t so long ago, however, that athletes wearing red, white and blue were struggling to win gold, silver and bronze.

In 1998, the U.S. team came away with just 13 medals in Nagano, less than one-half of Germany’s total of 29.

“I think in Nagano we felt like we were a small country at the Olympic Games,” said Bill Demong, a Nordic combined athlete who was elected by his peers to carry the U.S. flag into the closing ceremony Sunday. “There were teams that expected to medal, but as a whole team we felt kind of like an outsider.”

The U.S. Olympic Committee took a hard look at its unwieldy organizational structure, streamlined its operations and started putting the focus and support where it mattered: on the eight national governing bodies for winter sports.

Four years later, Americans won 34 medals in Salt Lake City, then a U.S. Winter Games record. And in 2006, the team won 25 medals in Turin.

The U.S. led the medal count in Vancouver for only the second time in Winter Olympics history. And during the last three Winter Games, its athletes have won 96 medals, more than any other country.

“I think the programs that we put in place after Nagano are having an impact on us today,” said Scott Blackmun, the CEO of the USOC. “We completely restructured the way we approached our support of the national governing bodies in 2000 and we started working with them to develop customized partnerships based on their individual needs.

“I think what you’re seeing here, in part, is a result of our efforts to support our NGBs (national governing bodies).”

That the Americans’ record medal haul occurred in Canada probably was no coincidence. Many of the U.S. athletes said they felt at home in Vancouver, where there was no major time-zone adjustment or language barrier.

“It does feel like a home Games for us and I think that’s part of the reason we’re doing so well,” said three-time Olympian Apolo Anton Ohno, who won three medals in short-track speedskating to increase his total to eight, a U.S. Winter Games record.

“Hopefully, someday when I do come back here I’ll have kids and I can say, ‘Daddy was here and he broke some records and won some medals for the U.S.’ ”

The USOC no longer announces medal projections before the Olympics, but Blackmun said the U.S. team exceeded expectations in Vancouver.

“We’re very, very pleased with the results,” he said. “No matter what our projections were, it would be hard to deny the fact that we’ve exceeded our expectations here. Absolutely, the team performed fantastically.”

Few athletes who were expected to contend for medals disappointed.

Ohno won three medals, as did skier Bode Miller. Shaun White dominated in winning halfpipe gold. Shani Davis became the first long-track speedskater to repeat as Olympic champion in the 1,000 meters and added silver in the 1,500.

Alpine skier Lindsey Vonn came to Vancouver with a shin injury, unsure if she would even be able to compete. She left with two medals: gold in the downhill and bronze in the Super-G.

“My goal coming into these Games was to win one medal, and I have one gold and one bronze and I am incredibly happy and proud of those accomplishments,” Vonn said. “I have no regrets whatsoever.”

There were plenty of surprises, too, perhaps none bigger than the performance of the Nordic combined team. No American athlete had ever stood on the Olympic podium in Nordic combined, but the U.S. team won four medals here, including gold by Demong.

The Americans’ success will help the USOC retain and add corporate sponsors in a difficult economic climate, Blackmun said.

“We can’t measure it specifically, but obviously our sponsors get more value when there’s more American success,” he said. “And we have so many great stories coming from the American athletes in these Games that I think is going to increase the appetite our sponsors have for the association and the Olympic brand. Did this help? Absolutely it helped.”

The U.S. spent about $55 million on Winter Olympics athletes and programs over the last four years, according to Mike Plant, a West Allis native and the chef de mission for the U.S. delegation in Vancouver.

That was about one-half the amount Canada spent on its “Own the Podium” program, which resulted in the Canadians winning 26 medals, their highest-ever total, to finish third in the medal count behind the U.S. and Germany (30).

“I think the thing for us is we all recognize in the United States that these are not just four-year programs,” Plant said. “It’s a long-term strategy and I think we would all encourage the Canadian public and government to not give up what they started.”

The 2014 Winter Games in Sochi will be a bigger challenge for the U.S. Already, the USOC has sent teams to Russia to get the lay of the land and inspect early progress on the venues.

“Someone asked about whether staying on top is going to be hard, and obviously it is,” Ohno said. “Anytime you have a target on your back it makes it very difficult. There are no guarantees, but I think America falls in love with the Winter Games every four years, as do the athletes.

“I’d like to think that future generations at Sochi and beyond will receive whatever is necessary to be at their absolute best at the Games. And I’d like to see it no other way.”