Dark day for U.S. stars shouldn't cloud Games

THE BALTIMORE SUN

SESTRIERE, Italy-- --The news broke earlier in the day that Michelle Kwan was catching an early flight home. She had hurt herself and was withdrawing from the Olympics.

And now Bode Miller was high on the mountain, preparing for his own takeoff. He shot out of the start gate and flew down the hill. It was a good run, a fast run -- but a fifth-place run. "It would have taken a hurricane wind to get me into first," he'd explain.

Later in the evening, Apolo Ohno, the third prong of the mighty American trident, flew around a speed-skating track, but not fast enough to defend his Olympic crown.

And that, in short, is how the King, the Queen and the soul-patched Prince of the U.S. Olympic team ruined these Winter Games for everyone.

At least that's the gut reaction. It didn't feel good, did it? Kwan, Miller and Ohno were the three most recognizable faces on the American team -- thanks, NBC; thanks, Nike -- and yesterday's 1-2-3 combo to the stomach was knee-buckling.

Hey Michelle, is there room on that flight home for the rest of us?

On the surface, it all looks like an over-hyped Broadway show that bombs on opening weekend. But there's no need to cancel the rest of the run. The truth is, yesterday's bad news wasn't as devastating as it sounded, and it will probably have little bearing on the American medal count.

Don't worry -- your office Olympic pool should still be safe. Ohno still has a couple more races, and if you penciled in Miller to win in the downhill or Kwan to win in figure skating, you were misinformed. Neither was a favorite in his or her event.

Black Sunday it wasn't. Though we definitely entered dark-gray territory.

The struggle of the most famous Americans in the Games' opening weekend is hardly good news. Fans in the United States have a tough enough time identifying with the sports and the personalities in the Winter Games. In just a couple of days, we've had to start studying up on the Games' B-list stars. It's like showing up at a U2 concert and watching Gilbert Gottfried sing in place of Bono.

The medals will still come for the Americans. You just might have to memorize a few new names. Don't worry: NBC will help you out. The network makes it its job to create Olympic heroes.

Kwan's inclusion in these Winter Games was a made-for-TV spectacle. She earned her spot in figure-skating lore, but not on this year's Olympic team. Bowing out now actually helps to preserve her legacy nicely -- five world championships, nine U.S. titles, a silver and bronze from two Olympic finishes.

"She's a real loss to all of the United States Olympic Committee, to the United States of America and, I think, to the world," said Peter Ueberroth, chairman of the USOC.

Probably the universe, too, but Ueberroth chose the modest route.

No one wants to say it, but Kwan's withdrawal is for the best, allowing 17-year-old Emily Hughes a shot to sneak up on the field. It also gives valuable experience to a young skater who could be a favorite at the 2010 Games.

Perhaps the biggest American shock yesterday actually had nothing to do with Kwan or Miller. No one could have predicted the poor finish by Daron Rahlves, the most accomplished downhill skier in U.S. history. He finished in 10th place.

He still has a couple more chances, as does Miller.

Miller was churned perfectly out of the hype factory, delivering different controversial comments to just about every media outlet on the globe. It was easy to forget that he wasn't the favorite heading into yesterday's downhill; he just enjoyed the sound of his voice more than others. Miller's best chance for a medal is still in the combined event, which takes place tomorrow.

And Ohno has two more shots at a medal, too -- in the 500-meter and the 1,000-meter. Neither of those are guarantees. The 1,500-meter is what brought him gold in Salt Lake City and was his best opportunity here in Turin. To not even reach the final makes you wonder about his chances in the remaining races.

The Olympics aren't over. But yesterday was a reminder that the faces from the commercials and the magazine covers can't always live up to their billing. We measure disappointment based on expectation. And we usually side with an emotional favorite, not a competitive one.

No one is going to say that it was a good day. In the morning, the U.S. lost Kwan. In the afternoon, Miller lost his race. And in the evening, Ohno might've lost his best chance at gold.

But it was just one day, a few shades away from black. No need to lose perspective, too.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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