Perhaps more than any time in Winter Olympics history, the United States begins competition with a reputation to uphold.
For decades, America was somewhat of a Winter Games pushover, regularly ceding dominance to rival superpower Soviet Union, or smaller states that specialized in cold-weather athletics: Norway, Germany, Austria, Canada.
But that has changed dramatically in recent years, the result of a coordinated and sustained long-term strategy, from the United States Olympic Committee down to individual coaches, aimed at grooming promising young athletes, investing in sports science and targeting resources to sports where America has the best chance at reaping more of the quadrennial medal count.
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From Salt Lake onward
This financial arms race has been underway since the mid-1990s, when the United States was awarded the 2002 games in Salt Lake City. That shifted the country’s training center from tiny Lake Placid, N.Y., home of the 1980 Games, to an international city equipped with top-notch universities and world-class training facilities, including a Center of Excellence that opened in 2009. It also triggered an avalanche of fund-raising that trickled down from the USOC to sports’ national governing bodies.
The result has been remarkable. America’s medal output nearly tripled since 1998, culminating with 37 in 2010 in Vancouver — the first time since 1932 that the United States won a Winter Olympics medal count.
In Sochi, America is expected to remain at or near the top. The Dutch sports analysis firm Infostrada predicted that the U.S. will win the most gold medals, 16, and finish behind Norway and Canada in the total medal count, with 29 spread across 10 sports. Alpine skier Ted Ligety, bobsledder Steven Holcomb and speed skater Shani Davis are the Americans most likely to win multiple medals, the company said.
“What’s happened here is the U.S. has transformed itself to be competitive with other large countries, which it wasn’t back in 1998,” Simon Gleave, Infostrada’s head analyst, said.
What makes that transformation impressive is while most countries suffer a drop-off in performance after hosting the Olympics, America’s performance hasn’t faltered in the years since Salt Lake City, Gleave said.
Simply sending more athletes to the Games doesn’t necessarily translate into medals. But the U.S. has one of the best per-ratio rates of success in the world, with about 16 percent of American competitors winning medals, Gleave said.
Alan Ashley, the USOC’s chief of sport performance, said he’s not going into the Sochi Games with a specific medal count in mind. But he sounds confident about America’s chances, because of the breadth of talent.
There are few sports where the U.S. doesn’t have a medal contender, which is exactly what the long-term development strategy aimed to achieve.
“We’ve been able to really customize and drill down and see where we can have the greatest impact, whether it was with funding or sport science and medicine, use of our training centers, anywhere we can deploy resources against a specific need, which was going to help athletes prepare better and get a better competition opportunity,” Ashley told reporters in a conference call last week.
He added: “ I’d like to try to get as many athletes as possible opportunities to become Olympians but to then become successful Olympians as well. And that means really trying to understand the needs of each of the sports, and then try to match those needs up with our resources. It’s been a big, big push in these last few years.”
One success story
To understand how this has happened, it helps to examine the story of one relatively obscure American team: Nordic combined.
For decades, Nordic combined — a pairing of cross-country skiing and ski jumping — suffered as an American Olympic backwater: little prestige, paltry funding, limited training facilities, terrible results. The U.S. had never won a medal of any kind. Their traveling teams were treated like second-class citizens in Europe.
But two decades ago, things began to change, from the top and from the bottom.
First, there was a ground-level push by head coach Tom Steitz to find young athletes who could be molded into Olympic champions at a single training spot in Steamboat Springs, Colo. Among the early group of recruits were three adolescent boys named Todd Lodwick, Billy Demong and Johnny Spillane. All proclaimed themselves ready to try to become Olympians.
“We really made a commitment to each other as a team to be the best in the world,” Spillane said. “That’s kind of when it started.”
At the same time, officials at the USOC and the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association were targeting events that would be good return on investments — spots where the Americans had a chance to pick up the most medals.
With Steitz pushing for more funding and attention, and the USOC looking to boost the overall medal haul, Nordic combined became a target for recruiting world-class specialists, from coaches to experts in exercise science. The budding athletes embraced the intense new workout regimens and competition schedules.
They became good. Very good.
And then, Vancouver. The U.S. team won four medals: Demong took gold and Spillane silver in the large hill competition, Spillane won another silver in the normal hill competition, and the four-man team, which also included Lodwick and Brett Camerota, won silver in the team competition.
It seemed to most of the world as an upset, as if they’d taken the sport by storm. But the guys who lived it know it didn’t happen that way.
“It was a 20-year process of financial investment and sweat equity and doing the work,” said Dave Jarrett, who took over as the Nordic combined head coach in 2002.
“We took all the necessary steps to being successful at the Olympics,” Spillane added.
The hard part, as with any winning team, is to maintain that level of performance as its veterans age. Spillane is retired. Lodwick is 37, but he'll be in Soch for his sixth Winter Olympics, where he will be Team USA’s flag bearer at the Opening Ceremony. Demong, 33, is back, too, joined by brothers Bryan and Taylor Fletcher.
“We have the talent for the next two or three Olympics coming up,” Jarrett said. “We just have to reinvest our resources in the next generation and provide them with the same long-term planning that we did with the group in 2010.”
That’s now one of the sports’ biggest concerns. Some believe that the USOC’s commitment to Nordic combined has waned since 2010, perhaps with the rise of more marketable mountain sports, namely Alpine skiing (eight medals in Vancouver) and snowboarding (five).
“The finding has kind of been diminished and it’s harder to keep it going,” said Hans Berend, the Colorado father of an an Olympic hopeful who helps raise money for local clubs.
But one of the most bankable ways to stay in the spotlight is to keep winning. Some analysts have predicted at least one medal for the Americans in Sochi.
As the Sochi Games get underway, the United States team is poised to compete for medals in almost every event, from Alpine and cross-country skiing to freestyle skiing and snowboarding to speed skating, bobsled and ice hockey.
“The trend is still there,” Infostrada’s Gleave said.
Ashley, the USOC official, pointed out that there are 12 new medal events this year, including several involving snowboarding and freestyle skiing, which are events that mark deep American influence.
“It just so happens that within those sports we have a lot of really great talent,” he said.
He added: “Team USA goes into this in a really good place.”