Mounting Expectations

As hosts, U.S. athletes under pressure to peak


SALT LAKE CITY -- Will the American flag be a security blanket or a suffocating shroud for U.S. athletes competing at the Winter Games?

On the one hand, the sight of thousands of Americans screaming their red, white and blue heads off is a real confidence booster. Add to that the reality of having world-class venues with all the comforts of home.

"We get to sleep in our own beds," says Ashley Hayden of the U.S. luge team. "It's our money, our language, our food."

On the other hand, there are the expectations -- fueled by the patriotism generated after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks -- that may become impossible to fulfill.

"There's a lot of pressure with competing on your own soil. Americans want to see Americans do well," says luge teammate Tony Benshoof. "We expect to draw energy from the American people but there can be a downside to it if you allow it to be."

For dozens of athletes, the Olympics are not only in their country, but they are also in their hometown.

Picabo Street, winner of gold and silver medals, will end her Olympic career on the slopes of the Snowbasin Ski Area, site of the downhill course that's an hour's drive from her Park City home.

"This is my last race in America in front of Americans. Of course, I'm absolutely pumped," she says.

The double-edged sword of home-field advantage drew the attention of U.S. Olympic officials during the 1996 Summer Games.

"We looked at it after Atlanta, because it seemed to create problems for some teams," says Sean McCann, the head of sports psychology at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo.

"Most American athletes like the big-time stuff, the positive energy of the crowd, but it's difficult to gauge the mental impact of the Olympics until you're actually there."

Athletes in sports such as skeleton and luge have never seen hometown crowds in the thousands. Some coaches are in the unusual position of learning hand signals to ensure their advice isn't lost amid the cheers and noisemakers.

McCann says veteran Olympians, such as Street, hold an advantage over first-timers. He cites the case of one skier with international experience who seemed fine until he got to the top of the jump and saw his picture on the big television screen near the landing zone. "He started saying, 'Oh my God, oh my God, this is the Olympics,' " McCann says. "That's not the ideal situation."

The U.S. Olympic Committee set the bar high in the expectations department, with a goal of 20 medals, seven more than the United States won in 1998.

Traditionally, the host country does well in the medals count. At the last Winter Games, in 1998 in Nagano, Japanese athletes took 10 medals, half of them gold, a record for them. Four years earlier, in Lillehammer, host Norway collected the most medals, 26, and finished second to Russia in the gold haul.

The United States scooped up 12 medals, including six of the 14 gold medals, at the 1932 Lake Placid, N.Y., games. It collected the same total in the same place in 1980, including speed skater Eric Heiden's first-place sweep of all five events -- a record -- and the "Miracle on Ice" men's hockey team.

"You hope that's not a problem, but I can understand that there's a little more pressure at home and more expectations to win more medals," says Cameron Myler, a four-time Olympian and a member of the USOC board of directors.

The opening ceremony tonight at Rice-Eccles Olympic Stadium with President Bush, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, fireworks and 52,000 partisan fans will only heighten the effect.

"It's going to be an emotional thing to walk in and hear the crowd around us roaring, all 100 percent behind us," says J.P. Shilling, a speed skater from Baltimore. "It's going to be hard to put a cap on that bottle."

But that's exactly what McCann and the Olympic coaches have been working on in the months leading up to the games.

"It's a question of being good at controlling your arousal level to do well and not go over the top," McCann says. "We're telling them, 'Your job is not to win a medal for the U.S. Your job is not to win a medal for your family and friends. Your job is to slide fast on race day, and if you do that, you'll do well.' "

McCann says coaches are concentrating on the positives of home-field advantage. "We're reminding them that, in the NFL, teams fight for home-field advantage all year, and we've got it as a gift."

Still, athletes are taking precautions. Shilling, who has an apartment in Park City, is moving out -- not to give his parents a place to stay, but to get away from any distractions. He's moving with other team members to housing near the Utah Olympic Oval in Kearns, where they will compete. Skier Erik Schlopy has moved out of his parents' home in Park City and has placed voice mail on his cell phone telling callers he'll get back to them after the games.

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