The best thing you can say about the U.S. long-track speedskating experience in Sochi is that it's finally over.
On Friday, with hopes of individual glory already long behind them, the men's and women's teams, led by Shani Davis and Heather Richardson, tried to qualify for the semifinals in the team-pursuit relays. But once again, they were denied. Both teams were crushed in their quarterfinal heats—the men by Canada and the women by the Netherlands.
Now it's official: The United States will leave the 2014 Games without a single long-track speedskating medal.
That is not how things were supposed to go. These Olympics were supposed to be remembered for the coronation of Davis as one of the best speedskaters ever, the breakout stardom of Richardson and perhaps a moment of glory from Brian Hansen or Brittany Bowe along the way.
Instead, it will be remembered as an unmitigated disaster.
It all started with the suits. Whispers of a catastrophe began right away in Sochi, when the U.S. unveiled their much-hyped, high-tech Under Armour suits. They hadn't been tested in any prior competitions, which seemed a suspect strategy at best.
There was a hole in the back of the suits that was supposed to allow the heat to escape, but many speculated that it allowed air into the suits and therefore slowed down the skaters. As discouraging results began to pile up for the U.S. speedskating team, some blamed the suits, while other athletes like Davis tried to take full responsibility:
But midway through the Games, the Americans flew in their old suits that brought them success on the World Cup circuit. Unfortunately, the disappointing results continued, and the blame game shifted. Insiders, speaking with Gary D'Amato of the Journal Sentinel, wondered whether it had been appropriate for the team to train in high-altitude regions as opposed to sea-level conditions more similar to those in Sochi.
Fingers pointed directly at the administration, particularly at the damage done by the former executive director of U.S. Speedskating Mark Greenwald. His errors in leadership have primarily been associated with the disarray of American short-track speedskating, but that's likely because the long-track athletes were having enough success on the World Cup circuit over past four years to mask the chaos.
After finishing in an embarrassing last place in her 5,000-meter race, veteran Maria Lamb called out Greenwald and current high-performance director Finn Halvorsen. She spoke to reporters, including the Star Tribune, about her frustrations:
I think over the last several years most of us have managed to perform incredibly well in spite of a lot of the organization rather than because of it. That adds up over the years, and unfortunately it came to a head here. This is my third Games and there is so much more nonsense in general going on.
Whatever the exact reason, the distractions have taken a toll on the skaters.
Richardson, 24, won the World Sprint Championships last year and was considered the favorite in the 1,000 meters and a medal hopeful in the 500 meters. Sochi was supposed to launch her into superstardom.
Instead, she finished in seventh place in the 1,000 and 1,500 and in eighth place in the 500 meters.
The biggest disappointment, however, was Davis. The 31-year-old came into these Games as the star of the speedskating team for the first time in his career and as the favorite to win a historic third straight gold in the 1,000 meters. Instead, he got wrapped up in the negativity surrounding the team and didn't even have a top-five finish.
In an honest and revealing press conference, he opened up about the letdown:
I wanted to be a speed skater that Americans knew, loved, followed and cheered for. And I worked hard to get that in 2006, it didn't quite go my way. In 2010 I didn't have anyone working for me in that corner that would pull those people in my corner.
Now in 2014, I had the whole country behind me,' he said. 'I had all kinds of really cool sponsors and people following me. I had everything going into it but I come away with nothing to show them and give back to them to say thank you for believing in my and following me. I'm really disappointed not only for myself, that I couldn't meet my expectations, but for the people that have been tuning in and watching. That's very disappointing that I couldn't do more for them.
There is no telling where U.S. speedskating will go from here, but it's certain that a complete overhaul of the program is needed. Unfortunately for Davis and other veterans, it might be too late.
When the Games began, the United States had 67 Olympic long-track medals. As the Americans leave Sochi, that number will remain the same. Instead, there are a lot more questions surrounding the organization and the athletes than ever before.
People talk about successes, and they also talk about colossal failures. This was the latter.
There is no doubt that the stink of the Sochi Games will remain with the U.S. speedskating team for some time.
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