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Serious money is making U.S. a serious winter player

THE BALTIMORE SUN

TURIN, Italy

--If your passport was issued in the United States, the Winter Olympics experience used to be a nice European vacation. Very rarely would you leave with a medal tucked in the goody bag between the pins and a chunk of fine Swiss chocolate.

While Norway, East Germany and the former Soviet Union basked in gold, silver and bronze, the U.S. came away with more of a bright shade of red, as in embarrassment.

There were two gold medals in 1988, and never more than six since 1980, until the U.S. caught the patriotic buzz of Salt Lake City for the 2002 Games. By putting an emphasis on performance-based funding and ratcheting support from sponsors to allow athletes to focus on training, the U.S. won 34 medals in Salt Lake (second only to Germany). It showed the U.S. could hang with the Europeans on the slopes, along halfpipes, on bobsled runs and on speed skating rinks.

"It nice to know that people aren't laughing at us when we show up anymore," said Jim Scherr, chief executive officer of the U.S. Olympic Committee.

In Turin, the United States is not expected to equal the medal count from Salt Lake City. The USOC is not making a prediction, but insiders suggest an attainable goal could rest in the mid-20s.

That would be significant, since historically there is a 41 percent drop in the medal count after a country hosts an Olympics.

"In Salt Lake City we were on our home soil, very friendly environment, same time zone, home-cooked meals, competing in front of friends and family," Scherr said. "We expect a more difficult time here, but we clearly have a great group of athletes."

Alpine bad boy Bode Miller, teammate Daron Rahlves, speed skaters Apolo Ohno and Chad Hedrick and snowboarder Shaun White -- among the 2,500 athletes competing here through Feb. 26 -- have raised America's winter sports cachet beyond the usual ice princesses on the figure skating rink.

The USOC final official roster includes 211 athletes, 85 of whom competed in Salt Lake City.

The rise of the United States actually began in 1989, when the USOC began funding programs with an emphasis on performance, demanding accountability.

"The USOC made the decision within the last decade to simply stop being an ATM," said Mike Moran, a publicist who has worked 13 Olympic Games.

But there would be money to be made -- much more than ever before -- with the introduction of "Operation Gold," which raised the medal stipend from a standard $2,500 to significant increases through the years.

U.S. athletes competing in Nagano in 1998 received $15,000 (gold), $10,000 (silver) and $7,500 (bronze). Athletes in Turin will receive $25,000, $15,000 and $10,000.

As sponsorship restrictions were eased, and the International Olympic Committee loosened its definition of "amateur athlete" and began allowing professionals into the Olympic mix, U.S. athletes no longer faced the challenges of working for a living while trying to stay competitive internationally. Home Depot began a job program in 1992 that provided athletes a steady paycheck -- even while they were off competing somewhere in the world.

"There's been small windows of opportunity opened in each sport," said five-time Olympian Chris Witty. "We have a logo on our skin suit, so that's an opportunity where we can sell ourselves to a sponsor and advertise. If you're a national team member and you're working a full-time job to survive, that's becoming more and more a rare thing, and people are more or less full-time professional athletes now."

Then there is the Gen-X/Y factor. The IOC, trying to make its Games more relevant to younger demographics, introduced freestyle aerials in 1994 in Lillehammer, Norway, followed by snowboarding in 1998 in Nagano, Japan.

A recent picture of a group of U.S. snowboarders in street clothes in Sports Illustrated suggests these are no longer your grandfather's Olympics.

By embracing the 20-something generation, and in some cases teens, the Olympics became a viable goal for American youngsters used to shredding on the slopes in alternative competition. U.S. men swept the podium in the halfpipe in 2002, and Kelly Clark won the women's gold.

American interest spiked considerably in Salt Lake, no doubt delighting NBC Universal Olympics chairman Dick Ebersol, whose network brought in 19.2 percent of U.S. TV households for the 2002 Olympics (compared to the disappointing 16.3 percent CBS drew in 1998 from Nagano).

"That was the IOC recognizing the popularity of those sports," said longtime Olympic broadcaster Jim Lampley. "I don't doubt that Mr. Ebersol was very helpful in whispering in their ear about American culture."

Neilsen ratings may not be as high given the six-hour time difference this time around, but there's now a lot of gold, silver and bronze to be found in those goody bags going through U.S. customs.

George Diaz writes for the Orlando Sentinel.

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