Women take over medal stand in down Olympics for U.S. men


February 23, 1992|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

ALBERTVILLE, France -- When you clear through all the trash sports and all the tough talk, when you get past the hockey miracle that went bust, the cover-boy downhill skier who finished ninth, the laid-back luger who finished 10th, the returning speed skating medalist who should have passed on the fish, what you are left with is this:

Without the women, the U.S. Winter Olympic team would have been one gigantic Luxembourg.

For the United States, the Olympics ended yesterday. They ended with a hockey team that lost to Czechoslovakia in the bronze-medal game. They ended with a feisty, 29-year-old singer-songwriter named Cathy Turner winning a gold medal in a photo finish in the 500-meter short-track speed skating final.

The final medal count of five golds, four silver and two bronze equaled the best U.S. winter performance on foreign soil since its 11-medal showing in Oslo in 1952. Only twice before, in 1932 and 1980 in Lake Placid, N.Y., had the United States won 12 medals at a Winter Games.

"Let's face it, the U.S. will never be a major power in sports like cross country skiing because the average kid in Peoria will not be exposed to it," three-time Olympian Bonny Warner said.

But there are niches for the Americans at the Winter Games.

This time, the U.S. women led the way.

Nine of the American medals were won by women, including golds by speed skater Bonnie Blair (500 and 1,000 meters), freestyle mogul skier Donna Weinbrecht, figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi, and short-track speed skater Turner.

The U.S. Alpine program, a worldwide joke for nearly six years, received a boost when Diann Roffe (giant slalom) and Hilary Lindh (downhill) won silvers.

In short-track speed skating, Turner sprinted the opening leg on the silver-medal winning 3,000-meter relay team.

In figure skating, the 1-3-4 finish of Yamaguchi, Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding was the best in U.S. women's history.

Even though the American women didn't receive a luge medal, they received a fifth-place performance from Cammy Myler.

Now, consider the men:

This was a near all-sport disaster.

Speed skating, once an American strength, is now a sideshow on an oval. Dan Jansen, the world record-holder in the 500,

finished fourth. Eric Flaim, the returning silver medalist in the 1,500, ate contaminated fish the night before his race, got sick, and wobbled to 24th. U.S. coach Peter Mueller, reviewing the team's overall performance, said: "We've got a lot of dead wood around here."

Duncan Kennedy, second on the men's luge World Cup circuit, was 10th. After his race, he went snow-boarding.

AJ Kitt's disappointing finish in the downhill mirrored another dismal men's skiing performance. At least most of the men finished their races, this time. Four years ago in Calgary, Canada, the men could hardly stand and ski.

The bobsled team bickered, as usual, and extended its streak of Olympic futility to 36 years.

The only individual men's medalists were Paul Wylie, who won a silver in figure skating, and Nelson Carmichael, who earned a bronze in the moguls skiing competition.

"I wish the men had done better," Wylie said. "But you can't wax philosophical about it. You just have to go out and perform."

But why did the women do so well?

Some theories:

The Olympics as pro sports

America is not exactly a ski and skate country. The quickest ticket to sporting poverty is to become a biathlete or luger. The top male athletes gravitate to sports with professional futures. But with few pro opportunities open to women, some of the best and brightest can carve out Olympic careers.

Take Blair. With three golds, she is the all-time Winter Games leader among American women.

"There [are] no pro football or pro baseball leagues for women," Blair said. "For us, the Olympics is the highest athletic achievement."

American culture

Don't knock it. The country of fast food and rock 'n' roll also has developed broad-based programs for women's sports. Title IX, the congressional act that mandated equal access to public funding and facilities for athletics, triggered a money flow to female competitors. Today's top athletes are also following a career path established by pioneers such as tennis player Billie Jean King, who fought for and won equal rights on and off the court.

"Little girls don't have to play with dolls anymore, they can play in Little League," said Warner, who is retiring from luge to fly jets for United Airlines.

"Moms don't frown on sports either," she said. "In the rest of the world, young girls still have to buck the common stereotype of barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen. Boys, on the other hand, are likely to have more of an advantage than U.S. men in the international arena."

The fall of the wall

Beyond the laboratories, the sports schools, the personal rewards and the personal coaches, the real secret of the East German sports machine was this:

It was fueled by medals from women.

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