Medals more precious for U.S.


Recalling U.S. Winter Olympic heroes of recent years, names that come to mind are figure skaters such as Tara Lipinski and Sarah Hughes, alpine skiers such as Picabo Street and Tommy Moe and speed skaters such as Chris Witty and Derek Parra.

One name that shouldn't be overlooked is George Steinbrenner.

After the nation's athletes won a mere six medals at the 1988 Winter Games in Calgary, behind eight other countries, the U.S. Olympic Committee appointed an overview commission to determine how the United States could improve in the medal standings.

To prove its seriousness, the USOC appointed a chairman well-known for his aversion to anything other than first place.

A year later, the Steinbrenner commission, as it became known informally, reported that the USOC's mission was not, as some believed, to promote physical fitness among the nation's youth, but to win medals.

Even less surprising considering the New York Yankees owner's approach to winning in baseball, the commission reported that the best means of achieving the goal was to spend more money on the athletes.

Eighteen years later, the entire U.S. Winter Olympic team still costs only a little more than the left side of the Yankees' infield. But the results have been remarkable.

The United States improved to 11 medals in 1992 and to 13 in '94 and '98 before winning a record 34 in 2002 in Salt Lake City, second to Germany's 36.

Some have attributed the United States' success in Utah at least in part to the home-ice advantage, but, four years later, projections are that the U.S. team for the Winter Olympics beginning Friday in Turin, Italy, could win even more medals than in 2002.

The USOC is more cautious. Steve Roush, the committee's chief of sport performance, estimated U.S. athletes will win 25 medals, including nine golds. That, according to his predictions, would place the United States fourth behind Norway, Germany and Canada.

Results of international competitions during the past 14 months, however, suggest that he is too cautious.

U.S. athletes won a record 25 medals last year, 11 more than they won in the year before the Salt Lake City Games.

"Our goal is not to decline," Jim Scherr, USOC chief executive, said at a media summit in Colorado Springs, Colo., in October.

But he acknowledged that, though other countries considered the United States' performance in Salt Lake City an aberration, "We're going to again surprise the world."

Chad Hedrick, a former in-line skater from Texas, could be the Michael Phelps of the Winter Olympics. While Phelps was pursuing Mark Spitz's swimming records in the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, Hedrick is chasing the legend of Eric Heiden.

Heiden won five gold medals in speed skating in 1980 in Lake Placid, a record that could be duplicated by Hedrick. But he won't be favored to do it, primarily because of strong competition in a couple of shorter races by teammates Shani Davis and Joey Cheek.

The United States should be strong in alpine skiing, with Bode Miller, Daron Rahlves and Ted Ligety giving the men's team medal contenders in all five races. Only the Austrians, led by Hermann Maier and Benjamin Raich, are considered to have more depth.

The U.S. figure skating team might not be as strong as usual. Michelle Kwan, in her third Olympics, has been injured and Sasha Cohen, who won this year's national championship, is inconsistent.

Bel Air's Kimmie Meissner, second at nationals, could contend if she lands her triple axel in the free skate.

The strength of this year's figure skating team, for a change, could be the ice dancers. Tanith Belbin, a Canadian native who earned her U.S. citizenship less than two months ago, and Ben Agosto could be the first U.S. ice dancers to win a medal since 1976.

The USOC is most proud of the strides the team has made in luge, bobsled and nordic combined, sports in which it has traditionally struggled. Todd Hays, a silver medalist in the four-man boblsed in 2002, is a medal favorite in the four-man and two-man this time.

The United States even has a contender in the biathlon in Alaskan Jay Hakkinen, who could become the first American to win a medal in the sport.

As has come to be expected, the United States should be dominant in the extreme sports with snowboarders such as Shaun White, Danny Kass, Seth Wescott, Gretchen Bleiler, Hannah Teeter and Lindsey Jacobellis and freestyle skiers such as Jeremy Bloom, Toby Dawson and Emily Cook.

Sports such as those, along with curling, short-track speed skating and women's ice hockey, have been added to the Winter Games program in recent years, contributing significantly to the United States' improvement in the medal standings. Almost half of the U.S. medals in 2002 were in sports that weren't included in 1988.

But there is no question that the increased financial aid to U.S. athletes also has been a factor. The USOC has spent $48 million in athlete assistance, including direct payments, in the past four years, almost 20 percent more than in the four years before the Salt Lake City Games.

Roush said preparations for Turin began as soon as the closing ceremony ended.

"While everyone was high-fiving and celebrating," he said, "my team was trying to figure out how we don't go backward in 2006."

Coming tomorrow: Games different now for Dick Ebersol.

2006 Games

Site: Turin, Italy

Opening ceremony: Friday

Closing ceremony: Feb. 26

TV: Chs. 11, 4, CNBC, MSNBC, USA

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