Olympic team treads an icy middle road between the peaks and valleys

USA ... USA ... USA 1992

February 02, 1992|By Bill Glauber

Miracles to debacles.

The United States hockey team beats the Soviet Union in Lake Placid in 1980, and then spends the next two Olympic Winter Games slip-sliding to the bottom of the pack.

Eric Heiden wins five gold medals in speed skating in 1980. Eight years later in Calgary, Alberta, the entire U.S. Olympic team wins six medals and only two are gold.

Bill Johnson comes careening down a mountain in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, in 1984 to emerge as the Olympic downhill champion. Four years later, the United States not only doesn't win an alpine skiing medal, it has trouble finding competitors who can finish a race.

The Winter Olympics usually bring out the best and worst in American sports. A country accustomed to producing world-class athletes for games on grass, AstroTurf and hardwood has rarely dominated a sporting event laid out on ice and snow.

Yet when the 1992 Games begin Saturday in Albertville, France, the United States may be poised to produce performances that fit somewhere between a miracle and a debacle.

Two factors may work to the advantage of the United States -- history and talent.

The demise of the Eastern bloc has wreaked havoc with the sports programs of the traditional Winter Olympic powers, Germany and what was the Soviet Union.

Although the United States will never be considered a winter superpower, the country has assembled an unusually strong contingent of skaters and skiers. The team target is to exceed the U.S. record of 12 medals won at Lake Placid in 1932 and 1980.

"I know my job is to be a cheerleader," said Harvey Schiller, executive director of the United States Olympic Committee. "But I believe we have an outstanding opportunity to have the best Winter Olympics we've ever had."

MA Here is a sport-by-sport rundown of the U.S. medal prospects:

Alpine skiing

A.J. Kitt has drawn the bulk of the pre-Olympic attention. When he shot down a mountain in Val d'Isere to win the first downhill of the World Cup season, he gained instant Olympic medal credibility. Unfortunately for Kitt, the new Olympic course in Val d'Isere is more technically demanding than the layout he won on in December.

The U.S. women will make their medal bids in the slalom, giant slalom and super giant slalom. The names to remember are Diann Roffe, Eva Twardokens and Julie Parisien. Roffe and Twardokens each have top-four finishes on the World Cup this season.

Last March, Parisien earned the first World Cup victory for the United States in four years. But last month, she had a collision with a recreational skier, had four teeth knocked out and broke a wrist. Still, she expects to race and win at the Olympics.

Biathlon

Cross-country skiing and rifle shooting have never been U.S. strengths. Josh Thompson, who was expected to win a medal in 1988, fell to pressure, real and self-induced.

Now 30, and married, he has a new, broader outlook and could contend in the men's 20-kilometer event.

Women will compete in the Olympic biathlon for the first time. Unfortunately for the United States, its top performer, Anna Sonnerup, failed to qualify for the team. Joan Getshow emerged as the trials' leader.

Bobsled

Also known as the Olympic Law team, the U.S. bobsledders spent more time in court than on the track before the Games. The team was selected in July, but a new set of trials was ordered by a USOC arbitrator after a complaint was filed by Edwin Moses and Willie Gault.

Despite the chaos, and a new selection process, the United States may have its best chance for a medal since picking up a four-man bronze at the 1956 Games in Cortina, Italy. The reason is one man, Herschel Walker. The running back for the Minnesota Vikings is a better pusher than football player, and he'll be the brakeman for the top two- and four-man sleds. The team's top drivers: Brian Shimer (two-man) and Randy Will (four-man).

Figure skating

A U.S. strength in any Olympics, the team could come away with as many as five medals.

Kristi Yamaguchi, Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan will try to duplicate the 1-2-3 medal sweep they recorded at the 1991 World Championships in Munich, Germany. The only skater capable of breaking through against the Americans is 1989 world champion Midori Ito of Japan.

Yamaguchi was nearly flawless in winning her first national title last month in Orlando, Fla. But Harding sustained a tendon injury in her right foot and was unable to land her signature jump, the triple Axel. Kerrigan also removed three triple jumps from her long program at the nationals.

Todd Eldredge, the 1991 U.S. men's champion and bronze medalist at the World Championships, missed the nationals with a back injury but was given an Olympic berth based on past performances. In his place at the nationals, Christopher Bowman won a second title, but gave a lifeless, conservative performance. Paul Wylie returns to the Olympics for a second and final time.

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