Expectations high again for U.S. Olympians

Phil Jackman

February 03, 1992|By Phil Jackman

Four years ago, at the Winter Olympics in Calgary, U.S. athletes captured just six of 138 medals available. If it weren't for the fact the skate and ski sports draw yawns from most Americans, a full scale insurrection might have ensued.

Also failing to come through big time was the host country, Canada, which had poured $25 million into a program entitled "Best Ever," an attempt to at least be competitive.

A man named Jack Lynch headed up "Best Ever" and, late in the Games, a conference was called to get his thoughts on the program's progress. U.S. and Canadian media were hanging from the rafters.

Lynch said Canada's five medals (no golds) constituted a step in the right direction. A roar of disagreement went up.

"Five is better than two, look it up," Jack roared back. "We won two medals in 1984, the same number in 1980 and the same in 1976."

He then looked at his countrymen and the crush of reporters from below the 49th parallel and delivered a message that applied to both:

"Maybe the media's expectations were too high. And if the media is going to whine and cry about not winning enough medals, the public will react the same way."

Guilty, as charged.

But, often, it goes far beyond the newspapers, television and radio. Here in the United States, it's as if it's our birthright to win or finish no farther back than runner-up.

Perhaps the only defense we have is that's what the days and weeks immediately prior to competition is for, unbounded optimism.

What baseball fan, with the start of spring training at hand, doesn't think his team won't improve dramatically this season? Put yourself in Cleveland and imagine if there was no hope just because the Indians have done little to speak of since 1959. At least they moved their fences in this season.

Imbued with this sense of optimism four years ago, the usually doomsaying press forecast a dozen, maybe even more, golds, silvers and bronzes for Uncle Sam. Reality arrived quickly, a U.S. athlete not mounting the victory stand until late in the fourth day of competition.

While such a happenstance demands that we all take a more conservative approach in our thinking this time, at the same time we know that takes all the fun out of speculation.

As Jack Lynch informed us a few years ago, "only a couple of countries come to the Winter Olympics expecting to win a dozen medals, the Soviets and East Germans, and by that I mean gold medals. Most other countries are in the 4-5 category, including the U.S., Sweden, Finland and a few others."

Of course, the Soviets as we knew them and the East Germans are no more. But, if anything, Germany figures to be more potent now that West and East are as one, and the "Unified Team" of five Russian republics can still live off their depth and the mastery of their development system.

Regardless, U.S. athletes almost cannot help but prove their skimpy total of six medals -- two gold, one silver and three bronze -- of four years ago an aberration.

Almost everything that could go wrong, did. Recall those unbelievable tumbles speed skater Dan Jansen took as he fought the sorrow of losing his 27-year-old sister to leukemia just as the Games were getting under way. He was a shoo-in for two medals, one a gold, and is back now better than ever.

Speed skating was a savior for us even though unusually bad breaks pushed medalists Bonnie Blair and Eric Flaim to a combined total of five fourth-place finishes in other races. Returning with this trio is Nick Thometz, who figured to medal last time before falling victim to a serious infection at the 11th hour.

Figure skating (three medals) was our other strong suit in '88, and we could conceivably match that total in the ladies singles in France. Kristi Yamaguchi, Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan swept the prizes at last year's World Championships and, seemingly, have only injured Midori Ito (Japan) to worry about. The men have world placer Todd Eldridge and unpredictable

Christopher Bowman as a solid 1-2 punch while anything picked up in pairs and dance would be gravy.

If it wasn't for imfamous ski-jumper Eddie "The Eagle" Edwards, the Jamaican bobsled team and that slalom guy from Guatemala, the U.S. skiers easily would have made off with the "what are they doing here?" award.

It's not as though they didn't produce under pressure, our ski bums and bunnies just weren't very good. A.J. Kitt is currently the second best downhiller in the world and the trio of Diann Roffe, Eva Twardokens and Julie Parisien have consistently been top five in World Cup competition.

Realistically, it is the first time the United States has a chance at hardware in the luge with Cammy Myler and Duncan Kennedy. Then, for the first time, moguls (freestyle skiing) is a medal event and our Donna Weinbrecht has been almost untouchable for the last few years.

There are some events we will be represented in but that's about it, notably biathlon, cross country, skiing, nordic combined and ski-jumping. Bobsled has left this category since, in Calgary, our four-man sled missed a bronze medal by a lousy two-hundredths of a second.

Naturally, too much will be expected from the hockey team as the network (CBS) and cable (TNT) strive mightily to rekindle memories of the 1980 "Miracle on Ice." It's conceivable our lads could sneak into the medal round, however, as it only takes a hot goalie and coach Dave Peterson appears to have done a better job of preparing the team this trip.

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