U.S. looks to build on 13-medal base Officials leave Nagano unfulfilled, but hopeful

February 23, 1998|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

NAGANO, Japan -- Thirteen was the best and the worst, an unlucky number and the number of medals won by the United States at the Winter Olympics.

The Americans came here with high hopes of securing up to 20 medals. Instead, they had to settle for 13, equaling their record haul from the 1994 Games in Lillehammer, Norway.

But this time, 13 seemed unspectacular. This time, six golds, three silvers and four bronzes left the Americans a bit unfulfilled.

"We had some disappointments, but we also had some very pleasant surprises," said Dick Schultz, executive director of the U.S. Olympic Committee. "We easily could have had somewhere in the neighborhood of 18 to 19 medals."

Schultz sought to look at the bright side, and talked up the depth the Americans are building in the long lead-up to the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City.

The Americans had eight fourth-place finishes and five fifth-place showings.

"The encouraging part about this is that most of the athletes who did not medal but who finished in the top 10 are just developing," Schultz said. "They'll be around for another Olympics."

But for now, the Americans are only dominant in the made-for-TV pursuits of snowboarding and freestyle skiing, which produced five medal-winning performances. It took a mogul specialist named Jonny Moseley to win the first American medal -- a gold. And the United States rules in aerials, where Eric Bergoust and Nikki Stone claimed golds.

In the more traditional winter sports, the Americans might as well be tourists. Cross country skiers, ski jumpers and biathlon competitors didn't even get within sight of a top-20 performance.

The Alpine ski team was saved from an Olympic shutout by Picabo Street's gold medal. The American men skiers were old and slow, with the exception of Daron Rahlves, who was seventh in the super-G.

In speed skating, the Americans continued to whine about the clap skates. But they did produce a few fine performances, from Chris Witty's silver in the women's 1,000 meters and bronze in the 1,500 to Jennifer Rodriguez's fourth-place showing in the 3,000.

America's bobsled drought also continued, as Brian Shimer's four-man sled missed a bronze by .02 of a second.

But more than a decade of targeted funding and technological development helped the U.S. luge team to its first Olympic medals. Chris Thorpe and Gordy Sheer claimed the doubles silver, and Mark Grimmette and Brian Martin earned the bronze.

But Sheer has no illusions about earning any newfound fame.

"I think I'll be pretty safe," he said. "I don't think I'm going to get mobbed by autograph seekers."

Perhaps the biggest disappointment of all for the Americans was in the glamour sport of figure skating. Tara Lipinski and Michelle Kwan went 1-2 in the women's event, but the Americans were shut out otherwise. And there is little new talent on the horizon.

Still, Lipinski's joy and Kwan's grace symbolized the Games.

And so did the gold-medal victory by the U.S. women's hockey team, which beat Canada in a historic game that elevated a sport.

"After all the hard work for so many years, I had all my dreams come true in Nagano," team captain Cammi Granato said.

Will she compete in Salt Lake City?

"I would like to," she said. "When we watched the Summer Olympics in Atlanta and the women did so well, they sort of set a standard for us. To know that we won a gold medal puts us in the same class as them. That means a lot, because we really look up to them. Hopefully, we can help do the same thing for women's sports."

The flip side of the American hockey experience was provided by the men. The NHL pros lost to the Czech Republic, and then a few of them trashed their living quarters in the Olympic Village.

Instead of becoming ambassadors for a sport, the players -- whether or not they were involved in the village incident -- became symbols of Ugly Americanism.

And USOC officials remain furious.

"Sure we're embarrassed," Schultz said. "You bet your life we're embarrassed.

"We're very disappointed and upset with the fact that a very small few blemished the image of all the athletes who were here. We will deal with that. We don't know who was involved, but we will deal with it. We expect all of our athletes to be role models."

But the hockey shenanigans couldn't overshadow the U.S. performance.

The Americans were good, just not great in Nagano. Their aim is to do a lot better in Salt Lake City.

"This gives us a terrific platform for Salt Lake," Schultz said. "We want Salt Lake to be the pinnacle of success for winter athletes."

Pub Date: 2/23/98

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