America has disappeared from the world of speedskating.
At least that’s how it looks in Sochi.
Brittany Bowe went into Thursday’s 1,000-meter event as the world-record holder. She came out an eighth-place finisher, badly beaten and never really in contention for the gold medal, which was surprisingly taken by China’s Hong Zhang.
Not surprisingly, two Dutch skaters, Ireen Wurst and Margot Boer, won silver and bronze. The Dutch have won 12 speedskating medals already in these Games. If we're keeping score, it's 12-0 Netherlands over the U.S., the one-time world power.
A day before, the USA's Shani Davis was only eighth in the 1,000, an event he was hoping to win for a third straight time. In the men’s 500, Davis’ 24th-place finish was the best the Americans could do.
"I honestly couldn't tell you what it was," Davis said (via The New York Times). "There’s no excuse. Nothing physically went wrong."
That seems to be the consensus: No excuse, no good explanation.
Not that people aren't reaching to find explanations. Three sources told the the Wall Street Journal that the high-tech Under Armour suits are partially to blame.
"I would like to think that it's not the suit," Davis said. "I would never blame the suit. I'd much rather blame myself. I just wasn't able to do it today, but other people were."
Regardless, these desultory performances are alarming for a winter sport where the U.S. used to assume it would gather up medals and put up flag-waving performances.
Now, Dutch men and women have become an army in orange who are so full of confidence that they might as well congratulate themselves before they even get on the ice.
Once upon a time that was the U.S., a speedskating power. Can you remember?
American women won the 500 five times between 1972 and 1994. Stars were made. Bonnie Blair, Sheila Young, Anne Henning. As recently as the Salt Lake City Games, Chris Witty and Jennifer Rodriguez were first and third in the 1,000.
On the men’s side, Eric Heiden is still famous for his Olympics in 1980, when he won an unprecedented five gold medals. Heiden, who is the USA team doctor now, was followed by the Dan Jansen era, giving American fans the overwhelming storyline for three Olympics.
It seemed Jansen, who set eight world records during his career, was always heading into the Olympics as a gold-medal favorite in the 500 and 1,000, always having emotional traumas or unlikely falls. He had one Olympic Games when he was speaking over the phone to his sister who was dying of cancer.
In his last-ever Olympic event, Jansen pulled out a goosebump-raising win in the 1,000 in the 1994 Lillehamer Games after he fell in his signature 500-meter event and was reduced to tears.
The crowd was wild for the young man who had raised the profile of the sport, and Norwegian fans were waving American flags for Jansen.
Jansen's torch eventually was passed to Shani Davis and Chad Hedrick. Hedrick captured three medals in Turin in 2006, winning gold in the 5,000, silver in the 10,000 and bronze in the 1,500. Davis, who became the first African-American Winter Olympian, won gold in the 1,000 at Turin in 2006 and silver in the 1,500. Four years later in Vancouver he replicated those results.
But that was then. When the U.S. had innovative skaters.
You can search far and wide and won't find a reason that no longer is the case. The state-of-the-art facility that skaters now benefit from, built in Salt Lake City for the 2002 Olympics, should have put skaters in a position to be better than ever.
Instead, speedskating is now all about the Dutch, the Canadians, Chinese and Koreans.
There were high hopes for the U.S. in Sochi. Maybe Davis would find magic in his two favorite events, the 1,000 and 1,500. Bowe, with her world record earned just a month ago, and teammate Heather Richardson, who won a gold medal at the 2013 World Championships, certainly could find their way to a medal of some sort.
But it hasn't happened. Not yet.
So far, these Olympics have been a disastrous blank for U.S. skaters.
There should be no excuses.
Maybe Davis can salvage something from these Games in the 1,500—but that will seem as if it's too little, too late. The U.S. has just disappeared from the speedskating radar, and there is no good reason.
Diane Pucin is the Olympics lead writer for Bleacher Report. She covered seven Games for The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Los Angeles Times. You can follow her on Twitter @mepucin.
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