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U.S. should do well in Vancouver Games

Team has great expectations, and medal totals could be about the same as at Turin in 2006.

February 13, 2009|Philip Hersh

The only other time the Winter Olympics have been in Canada, at Calgary in 1988, the U.S. team did so poorly the U.S. Olympic Committee called on volatile and voluble George Steinbrenner to fix the mess.

The Yankees owner, then a USOC board member, calmly and quietly headed a commission that a year later issued a report reducing the USOC's previously amorphous mission to this bottom line: "Winning medals has always been the primary goal."

And the U.S. has gone on to win a lot more medals in subsequent Winter Games than the two gold and six total in 1988 -- its fewest total medals since 1964 and fewest gold medals since 1968.

Some of the improvement owes to an enlarged number of medal events: 46 in Calgary, compared with 78 in Salt Lake City (2002), when Team USA achieved record numbers (10 gold, 34 total); and 84 in Turin, Italy (2006), when it set records for a performance in a foreign Winter Games (nine gold, 25 total).

In some of those new events, like snowboard, the U.S. began with a big lead from longer involvement in the sport. Traditional ski nations like Switzerland, Germany and Austria have been closing that gap once they realized it was worth allocating resources to sports with many medals at stake.

So where does that leave Team USA heading into the second Canadian Winter Games -- and 21st overall -- that open a year from Thursday in Vancouver?

"We have great expectations for this team," USOC chief executive Jim Scherr said.

It is not unrealistic to expect Team USA to win more medals than it did in Turin.

After all, without an upcoming home Winter Games as incentive the way the Beijing Summer Games were, China is yet to become a superpower in winter sports -- although it is likely to win more medals than its 11 in 2006.

"On the winter side, they are probably where they were in 1996 on the summer side," Scherr said. "We have been fortunate they haven't turned their full focus and energy to the Winter Olympic side."

The following are glass-half-full predictions for the U.S. performance next February, which add up to nine gold and 27 total.

But they all go out the window should any of three key athletes -- Alpine skier Lindsey Vonn, speedskater Shani Davis and short-tracker Apolo Anton Ohno, whom I figure for six individual and two team medals -- not make it to the Winter Games in good form.

(Medals from 2006 in parentheses).

Snow Sports

BIATHLON (0): U.S. never has won a medal and that won't change in Vancouver, but veteran Jay Hakkinen, 31, could be the first to get a top-10 individual finish. Prediction: no medals.

ALPINE SKIING: (2 gold): Lindsey Vonn will be favored in three events (downhill, Super-G, combined) and a threat in slalom. If he deigns to compete and his bad ankle fully heals, Bode Miller is, as usual, a medal contender in five events. The 2006 champions, Ted Ligety (combined) and Julia Mancuso (giant slalom), are struggling this season: Prediction: Four medals, two gold.

CROSS-COUNTRY SKIING (0): One medal in history -- Bill Koch's 1976 silver. Andy Newell, Torin Koos and Kikkan Randall have top-10 ability. Prediction: No medals.

FREESTYLE SKIING (1 bronze): Skicross (new event): Former downhill great Daron Rahlves and another ex-Alpine guy, Casey Puckett, are contenders. Prediction: 1 medal, no gold; Aerials: Jeret Peterson does the toughest move in the sport. Prediction: 1 medal, no gold; Moguls (1 bronze): Hannah Kearney has been a consistent World Cup performer. North Americans do well in North America. Prediction: 1 medal, no gold.

SNOWBOARD: (7 medals, 3 gold, 3 silver, 1 bronze): Boardercross (1 gold, 1 silver): Champion Seth Wescott and Lindsey Jacobellis, whose hotdogging turned gold into silver, both return: Prediction: 2 medals, 1 gold. Parallel giant slalom: (1 bronze): Prediction: no medals. Halfpipe (2 gold, 2 silver): Shaun White, now a grizzled 22, will be hot again. U.S. women -- including Hannah Teter and Gretchen Bleiler, who finished 1-2 in 2006 -- good enough to sweep. Prediction: 4 medals, 2 gold.

SKI JUMPING: (0): Top-20 finish would be a victory -- and the first since 1992. Prediction: No medals.

NORDIC COMBINED (0): Led by Bill Demong, the U.S. will win its first medal in the jump-ski discipline. Prediction: 1 medal, no gold.

Sliding Sports

BOBSLED: (1 silver): Driver Steve Holcomb has been a force on the World Cup all season and won a four-man silver in the Whistler test event last weekend. 2006 silver medal driver Shauna Rohbock won at Whistler. Prediction: two medals, no gold.

SKELETON: (0): Zach Lund, who missed the 2006 Games after a positive test for a drug in a hair-loss product, has a big incentive but mediocre World Cup results this season. Noelle Pikus-Pace has similar incentive: Coming off a 2005 season in which she was World Cup champion, Pikus-Pace missed the 2006 Games after breaking a leg when a bobsled ran over her in training. Katie Uhlaender, gold and silver medalist at the last two worlds, also is a medal threat. Prediction: one medal, no gold.

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