U.S. faces dips in road from Salt Lake to Turin

Usually, medal count falls for host next time around

torino 2006

365 days to go

Olympics

February 10, 2005|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

Three years ago in Salt Lake City, the U.S. Olympic team feasted on home cooking, which led to its most successful Winter Games ever.

But if history is any gauge, the menu in Turin, Italy, might be thin a year from now.

"It's kind of like the difference between playing at home versus going to an away stadium where you're no longer the favorite," said U.S. moguls skier Jeremy Bloom, a former wide receiver for the University of Colorado football team.

In the 14 post-World War II Winter Games, only three host countries have improved their performances, albeit marginally, the next time out: Austria in 1980, Yugoslavia in 1988 and Canada in 1992.

The United States, host of the Winter Games in 1932, 1960 and 1980, saw measurable reductions in medal counts four years later.

At the 2002 Winter Games, the U.S. team won 34 medals - nearly triple the previous record, set in 1998. It broke a 52-year drought in men's bobsled, won the men's and women's skeleton competitions and earned 10 medals in skiing and snowboarding.

But the team as a whole still finished behind traditional powerhouses Germany and Norway, a situation that continued in the ensuing World Cup seasons and isn't likely to change in Turin.

Last season, for example, Germany won 45 medals on the winter sports World Cup circuit. In the same span, the Americans won 22 World Cup medals.

But that's not to say the U.S. Olympic Committee is backing away from the historical challenge.

During a teleconference Tuesday, spokesman Kevin Neuendorf said committee officials expected to "duplicate or exceed" the Salt Lake City total.

"We feel we are on track to reach those lofty goals again," he said.

USOC officials say advances in training and facilities - which have attracted foreign athletes such as the Canadians - and the deep talent pool drawn from the world of extreme sports will take the chill off the Winter Games.

Said Steve Roush, the USOC's chief of sport performance: "We are in the hunt."

A lot can happen between now and when team trials are held next fall and early next winter - injuries and retirements can alter the picture. But some roster decisions have already been made.

Picabo Street, the effervescent Alpine skier and gold and silver medalist, retired after Salt Lake City. So, too, did bobsled driver Brian Shimer, who won the bronze medal after four unsuccessful tries. And mogul man Jonny Mosely and his "dinner roll" trick will not rise again.

Gold-medal figure skater Sarah Hughes is on tour with "Stars on Ice," but has kept her amateur status and her options open. Few, however, think she will return.

But a mix of up-and-comers and veterans looking to settle scores or add to their medal collections will easily fill those spots.

Versatile Alpine skier Bode Miller is the cold-weather version of swimming's Michael Phelps. Miller, who won two silver medals in Salt Lake City, this season became just the second skier to win races in all four disciplines - downhill, slalom, giant slalom and super-G - and leads the World Cup points standings.

Kimmie Meissner of Bel Air isn't old enough to compete in the World Figure Skating Championships next month, but on the basis of her stunning third-place finish at the national championships, she would have to be considered a contender.

The 15-year-old Fallston High School sophomore will defend her title at the end of the month at the junior-level world championships, and then she and coach Pam Gregory will have some decisions to make.

"I'm not going to look past the junior worlds. It's one thing at a time," Meissner said last month. "The Olympics are exciting, and it's hard not to think about it. But that's getting ahead of myself."

The men's skeleton team is so deep that gold medalist Jim Shea, the sentimental favorite in 2002, might have trouble making the three-man squad. Young sliders such as Zach Lund and Eric Bernotas of Avondale, Pa., who used Shea as an inspiration, are now in position to push him off the team.

Still, veteran Olympics athletes say they will miss competing at home.

"I don't think the home field is overrated," said Vonetta Flowers, who in 2002 became the first African-American to win a Winter Olympics gold medal. "Salt Lake, we trained at that track, we knew that track and now we're going to Torino, where we have had fewer trips and they [Europeans] have the advantage."

Ashley Hayden, a member of the luge team, agreed. "We saw familiar faces, ate familiar foods, slept in our own beds, worked in the time zone we were used to. Being in the U.S. made it easier for extended families and friends to be there to cheer."

But Bloom said that while he'll miss the raucous U.S. fans at the opening ceremony in Turin, "I think as far as competing, it's the same snow, it's the same bobsled course, it's the same halfpipe. All the arenas are pretty much the same."

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