The thought of Americans at the top of the mountain at the XVI Winter Olympics is heady and strange. Still, Americans may have more to cheer about than ever before.
The sweeping political thawing in Eastern Europe and elimination of its government-aided sports programs, coupled with the U.S. Olympic Committee's increased financial support of its winter sports, may result in a U.S. record medal count in Albertville, France.
"I want to be able to leave here saying we came, we saw, we conquered," said Alpine skier AJ Kitt, the first American to win a World Cup race since 1984.
There are legitimate U.S. medal contenders in seven sports: Alpine skiing, bobsled, figure skating, freestyle mogul skiing (a new medal event), hockey, luge and speed skating. As usual, the United States' best medal chances are in figure skating where Kristi Yamaguchi, Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan are capable of duplicating their 1-2-3 finish in last year's World Championships.
The prospects appear to be an improvement for the 108-member U.S. contingent after the dismal 1988 performance at Calgary, where the top finish in skiing was a ninth by Edith Thys.
The United States' mark on 15 previous Winter Games was made in figure skating and speed skating. Of the 122 medals collected by U.S. athletes since 1924, 42 went to speed skaters, 33 to figure skaters. At the 1988 Games, all six U.S. medals (the lowest total since 1936) were earned in those sports.
"It is time to make our move, make a statement," said bobsledder Brian Shimer of Naples, one of two Winter Olympic athletes from Florida. "We want to win and have a foundation at the Olympics."
"I can't tell the athletes what to feel inside," said USOC executive director Harvey Schiller. "They have to do that on their own. We should show the U.S. that we are serious, and we can do something. This is the most prepared we have ever been for a Winter Olympics. We should start seeing the results."
The USOC earmarked more than $74 million in Olympic grants, nearly twice the $38 million for the previous quadrennium.
As with any Olympics, forecasting performances in the 12 medal sports in Albertville would be easier if not for the intrusion of numerous intangibles.
While the U.S. team is much the same with medal hopefuls Dan Jansen and Bonnie Blair in speed skating and Bonny Warner in luge, the same can't be said for the radically different teams that will represent the former Eastern Bloc countries. With a combined Germany, there is no longer the Communist-system assembly line that produced elite athletes and coaches for East Germany. Gossport, the Soviet sports agency that funded 25,000 athletes and 12,000 coaches, has been closed.
The German unification in 1990 eliminated the massive state support for sports that East German coaches were accustomed to, leaving scores in limbo. Some were retained by the German federations that took over the running of the sports. Some have gone to other Western countries.
Other coaches are losing their jobs, their careers ruined by revelations of widespread doping in East German sports and links with the hated Communist police. The job cuts have affected some of the sports that were most successful in East Germany. Where there were once 200 coaches for East German speed skaters, 25 remain.
U.S. officials said German athletes will not be affected as much by the system change at this year's Olympics as they will be at the 1994 Games in Lillehammer, Norway. The Germans still will be strong in bobsledding, biathlon, luge, nordic skiing and speed skating.
For 32 years, East Germany and the Soviet Union churned out gold medalists. The Soviet Union has been the leading country in the medal count in seven of the last 10 Winter Olympics, and four of the last five.
From 1956 to 1988, the East Germans won 43 gold medals at the Winter Games, the Soviets 78, while the United States managed 25. At the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, the Soviet Union and East Germany won 54 medals combined.
Four years later, those countries don't exist, their strength diminished. How diminished remains to be seen. Former East German athletes will march under the German flag. The Unified Team, formed from the splintered Soviet Union, will send one team: 141 athletes and 54 coaches. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania will compete as independent states.
The Baltics always have produced good athletes in a variety of winter sports. They notified Albertville they will send small teams: 20 athletes from Estonia in cross-country skiing and biathlon, 30 from Latvia in bobsled, luge and skiing and about a dozen from Lithuania in cross-country and biathlon. All three countries had hoped to send more athletes but scaled down their plans because of limited money.
Croatia and Slovenia also will compete alongside Yugoslavia, the crumbling federation both republics took up arms to leave.