Making Sense of the Disappointing Winter Olympics Medal Count for Team USA

Tom Weir@@tomweirsportsFeatured ColumnistFebruary 22, 2018

Mikaela Shiffrin won gold and silver, but expectations were higher.
Mikaela Shiffrin won gold and silver, but expectations were higher.Christophe Ena/Associated Press

It's often said there's nothing sadder at the Winter Olympics than finishing fourth, but that appears to be the American team's destiny in Pyeongchang.

Trailing Norway, Germany and Canada isn't what the American audience anticipated after being fed all of those optimistic promos by NBC, but that's the reality as the Games head into their final weekend.

Things don't seem quite so dire for the U.S. after a surge of five medals on the final Thursday, including the rousing victory in overtime in women's hockey. More improvement may still come, with medal opportunities waiting in the final snowboard and freestyle skiing events.

And matters could be much worse, if not for the snowboard contingent that has shouldered the load for the U.S. with four golds among its six total medals. But it's troubling to know that without the extreme sports crew leading the way, the U.S. could have slipped behind the Netherlands and *shudder* maybe even France.

So why isn't the U.S. performing better? Well, we're not exactly a nation filled with competitors in biathlon and cross-country skiing. But we've also given up frozen turf we once owned in speed skating and figure skating, where all three of our women went splat in the first 30 seconds of their short programs

Tough weather, always the unpredictable cloud that hangs over a Winter Olympics, derailed Mikaela Shiffrin's quest for multiple golds, and the NHL's decision to turn its back on the Games took us out of contention in men's hockey.

But maybe the occasional windfalls of wintry medals for the U.S. have left us with unrealistic expectations for an event where we've often struggled. Don't forget that in 1988 at Calgary, in what essentially was a home Games for the U.S., Americans had a grand total of six medals and just two golds. And when the U.S. hosted at Lake Placid in 1980, America would have finished far down the list if not for Eric Heiden's five golds.

Here are just some of the explanations for what held the U.S. back in South Korea:

      

The Double-dipping Norwegians

Norway, with a population of only 5.2 million, has dominated these games from the start and is guaranteed to win the medal count. So what separates the Norwegians, who love to say "We are born with skis on our feet"? Is it a national diet that's heavy on salmon, pickled herring and the occasional reindeer steak?

Norway's domination included Marit Bjoergen's all-time record for medals.
Norway's domination included Marit Bjoergen's all-time record for medals.Dmitri Lovetsky/Associated Press/Associated Press

More likely, it's their ability to get multiple medals from multiple competitors, especially in cross-country skiing. Counting relays, Norway had six cross-country racers medal at least twice while piling up six golds, four silvers and three bronzes.

That includes Marit Bjoergen, whose four medals gave her the career record of 14 for the Winter Olympics. Norwegians also hold the second and third spots on the all-time list.

For the U.S., Shiffrin will leave with two medals, as will the ice dance team of Maia and Alex Shibutani.

      

The Fourth-Place Excuse

One alibi for the U.S. disappointments is that Americans have been oh-so-close to the podium but not quite up there. The poster girl for this agony of defeat is Shiffrin, who finished fourth while failing to defend her gold medal in the slalom, which is her specialty.

The fourth-place narrative is a compassionate one, but it is a bit misleading. The Winter Olympics are filled with slippery events decided by fractions of a second, and nearly every nation has a story of heartbreak to tell.

The Winter Olympics also tend to generate a swarm of unexpected medalists who prevail by an eyelash. And the U.S. had its share of those in Pyeongchang.

The U.S. had some heartbreak, but also had a breakthrough in cross country skiing from Kikkan Randall and Jesica Diggins.
The U.S. had some heartbreak, but also had a breakthrough in cross country skiing from Kikkan Randall and Jesica Diggins.Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

Chris Mazdzer was the first American to medal in men's luge with his silver in singles. The gold by Jessie Diggins and Kikkan Randall in the team sprint was the first by American women in cross-country skiing and only the second U.S. medal in the sport. In long-track speed skating, U.S. women won their first medal since 2002 by taking a surprise bronze in team pursuit and were only in the field because Russia's team was left ineligible by drug sanctions. John-Henry Krueger's path to a stunning silver in short-track speed skating was aided by a crash that wiped out three competitors in the five-man field.

So stop complaining about close calls.

     

Long-Track Speed Skaters Come up Way Short

Though no sport has minted more winter medals for the U.S. than long-track speed skating, that's starting to seem like ancient history. That team was shut out for medals in 2014 and this time claimed just one bronze.

The Netherlands once again ruled the oval, with 13 medals including six golds. But the Dutch were even more devastating at Sochi, where they won 23 medals. This time around, the Japanese, Canadians and South Koreans chipped away at the Dutch dominance, but the only U.S. skater who seriously contended for individual medals was Brittany Bowe.

It's a puzzling decline for a team that won seven medals in 2002, seven more in 2006 and that doesn't appear to have much significant talent on the rise.

     

Where Did All Those Russian Medals Go?

A big part of the American optimism for 2018 stemmed from Russia's team getting hammered by drug sanctions. Russians won 29 medals at Sochi, but its depleted roster may leave Pyeongchang with only one gold, in women's figure skating.

Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

The U.S. seemingly should have capitalized on having so many medals up for grabs. But the problem is that 11 of Russia's medals in Sochi were won in sports where Americans generally don't excel: cross-country skiing, biathlon, skeleton and luge. And another three were in long-track speed skating. Norway and Germany were the teams that swooped in and took advantage.

Those weren't the only nations on the rise in Pyeongchang.

Another factor that's tightening up the medals race is that the Winter games are showing signs of some NFL-style parity. At the previous two Winter Olympics, 10 nations pushed their medal counts into double figures. In Pyeongchang, 13 nations already have hit double digits, and China figures to make it 14.

 

Winter Olympics in Asia give the U.S. trouble

There have been many mentions that the U.S. appeared to be on pace to have its worst Winter Olympics performance since 1998 in Nagano, where the Americans left Japan ranking sixth for total medals with 13.

At the only previous Winter Olympics in Asia, in 1972 in Sapporo, Japan, the U.S. also was a disappointing sixth for total medals with eight.

And Americans would probably be fifth at this third Asia-hosted Winter Olympics if Russia had a full contingent.

That should give U.S. teams and coaches something to think about because they'll face the same problems with travel, time-zone changes and competing halfway around the world four years from now when the games are in Beijing in 2022.

Those issues likely won't be any easier to overcome, so maybe we should all start lowering our expectations now. 

      

Tom Weir covered eight Winter Olympics as a columnist for USA Today.

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