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At halfway point, U.S. exceeds hopes


SALT LAKE CITY - George Steinbrenner and meddling used to go hand in hand. Now, it's Steinbrenner and medaling.

At the halfway point in the Winter Games, the U.S. team has exceeded projections set by the U.S. Olympic Committee for the entire 16 days of competition. Americans have 16 medals - three gold, seven silver and six bronze.

Give some credit to Steinbrenner and a rock-bottom finish at the Winter Games in Calgary in 1988, where the United States won just six medals, two of them gold, to begin the turnaround.

Incensed by the outcome, Steinbrenner convened and paid for the Olympic Oversight Committee to figure out why a rich and powerful country couldn't make a respectable showing.

The lack of training facilities, feeder programs and athlete incentives topped the list of shortfalls, with the report concluding that "winning medals must always be the primary goal."

The Boss had spoken and pointed the way.

USOC spokesman Mike Moran, who is retiring after 23 years, said the report "changed the way we do business."

In the first Winter Games after the report, the United States picked up the pace, winning 11 medals in 1992 at Albertville, France, and 13 each at Lillehammer, Norway, in 1994 and Nagano, Japan, in 1998.

This year, the USOC set the goal at 13, a total that was both scoffed at and called too conservative.

Sandy Baldwin, at her first Olympics as USOC president, proclaimed this group of athletes "the best U.S. Winter Olympic team ever. We are psyched."

What changed? Until the Steinbrenner report, the most money any athlete had received in one year from the USOC was $2,500.

In 1992, the USOC started an incentive program that paid $10,000 for a gold, $7,500 for a silver and $5,000 for a bronze. Last year, those levels were increased to $25,000, $15,000 and $10,000.

These Winter Games have cost the U.S. Olympic Committee $240,000, but it's cash Baldwin said it will gladly part with.

Five years ago, the USOC established an $18 million program called "Podium 2002" that doles out money to promising athletes who need additional training help or financial assistance to compete overseas.

Training facilities were built and upgraded in Lake Placid, N.Y.; Park City, Utah; Colorado Springs, Colo., and San Diego.

Then, too, sponsors have stepped up their contributions. The women's hockey team went on a "Skate to Salt Lake" barnstorming tour of North America sponsored by Visa. The ski team gets major assistance from the equipment manufacturer Spyder. And Verizon sponsors the luge, skeleton and bobsled programs.

Dating to 1985, the partnership between U.S. Luge and Verizon is the oldest in Olympic winter sports and the most successful, with 267 medals in international competition, including silver and bronze Olympic medals in 1998 and this year.

"Before 1985, we didn't win anything," said team spokesman Jon Lundin. "But Verizon provided the financial foundation to recruit athletes, train year-round and hire a strength and conditioning coach."

The recruitment program is responsible for the three women who made this year's Olympic team and for Brian Martin, the 1998 bronze medalist in doubles and silver medalist last week.

Pleased with the arrangement, Verizon last fall added the bobsled and skeleton teams to its sponsorship list.

The luge program got another boost in 1992, when the York Corp. built a $1.1 million refrigerated facility in Lake Placid to allow athletes to practice their start technique, even in summer. Sensors in the start handles that allow sliders to push off detect uneven pulling and cameras record practices for later analysis.

"That's a huge deal, probably the most important in these games," Lundin said. "This [Park City] is a relatively easy track to get down, so to separate yourself from the field, a fast start is crucial."

U.S. doubles team Chris Thorpe and Clay Ives set the start record for the Park City track Friday on their way to the bronze medal.

The United States has gotten some lucky bounces over the years. The breakup of the Soviet Union splintered that sports program and many of the new countries don't have the money for training facilities or to pay top-level coaches.

And cynics note that the United States' medals surge coincides with the expansion of the Winter Games to include freestyle skiing, snowboarding and other non-traditional sports.

But despite the sweep of half-pipe snowboarding last week by American men, the medals count and the results of the previous three Winter Games don't indicate an overwhelming superiority.

To be sure, there have been some disappointments this year, but most were sentimental.

Picabo Street ended her Olympic career without a downhill medal to go with her 1998 super-G gold and 1994 silver in the downhill. After a blistering training run that raised hopes, teammate Daron Rahlves also finished poorly in the downhill and was eighth in yesterday's super-G.

Figure skater Todd Eldredge ended his stellar career without a podium appearance.

Still, the United States enters the last seven days of competition with some of its best events ahead of it.

The women's hockey team is expected to repeat its gold-medal finish of four years ago. Short-track speed skater Apolo Anton Ohno still has three events, though the deep gash he suffered in last night's collision could impact his performance. The skeleton team has three of the top seven male competitors, including last year's overall World Cup champion and two of the top six female sliders. And the U.S. women's bobsled team has two of the top three drivers, including Jean Racine, last season's World Cup champion.

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