- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 12, 2002

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) Someone better alert IOC officials to get to the bottom of this. If they worried a torn flag at the opening ceremony would make this America's Games, what are they going to do now?

Americans are actually winning medals in a Winter Olympics. And they're coming in bunches.

With props to some Gen X dudes who ran the table in the halfpipe, the United States finds itself in a sweet yet unfamiliar spot four days into the Olympics tied with Germany and Austria atop the medal leader board.

The good news is, it's no fluke. America has never won more than 13 medals in any Winter Games before, but now the goal of a record 20 medals here looks not only realistic but conservative.

And, if anyone had any doubt, the 30,000 people rocking the mountains with thundering chants of "USA, USA," tells you all you really need to know these are indeed going to be America's Games.

That snowboarders are leading the way they've won four of the six U.S. medals isn't all that surprising because the United States figured to pay more attention to hip, new sports.

But the American curling team even got off to a good start with a 10-5 upset of Sweden yesterday and there wasn't a "Watup, dude" heard from any of them. Then Adam Heidt nearly broke an 0-for-Olympics American medal drought in the luge, finishing fourth.

Still, American athletes are so mediocre in some traditional winter sports that even the U.S. Olympic officials privately concede there will be no American medals this Olympics in sports like cross country, biathlon and ice dancing.

America may have 64 people for every Norwegian, but for some reason it doesn't have anyone like Ole Einar Bjoendalen, who won his second Olympic gold in biathlon for Norway.

And, while Germany's Georg Hackl has won three golds and a silver in luge, no American has ever won even a bronze in luge.

The United States is third overall in Winter Olympic medals, behind only Norway and the former Soviet Union. But U.S. athletes have averaged only 10 medals a game for the last five Olympics, and have never won more than 13 in 18 games.

With that in mind, the U.S. Olympic Committee might have appeared overly confident in loudly announcing a goal of 20 medals in Salt Lake City. In private calculations, however, the USOC figured Americans might actually win 27 medals here.

A big reason Americans are having something to cheer about is an $18 million USOC program established after the 1998 Nagano Games meant to make a difference in an athlete with the potential to medal.

The program bought a compressor for ice at the Olympic Oval to allow U.S. speedskaters to train during the fall and late spring, and funded research into bobsled runners and speedskating boots and blades to keep Americans up with the best in the world.

Some cold, hard cash hasn't hurt, either.

Since Nagano, America's athletes have received $4.7 million to allow them to pay rent, buy cars and not have to hold jobs while concentrating on the games.

Figure skater Tim Goebel earned $139,971 to practice for the games, and the U.S. women's hockey team averaged $106,000 apiece.

There's money in medals, too. The halfpipe team picked up $50,000 in bonuses for its sweep, and every American gold medalist will go home with at least $25,000.

But the payoffs don't end there. NBC is enjoying a ratings bonanza that figures to get even better if the snowboarding types bring in the younger audience the networks covet.

And ticket scalpers on the streets are finding out they can get top dollar for events where Americans are favored, while they have to dump tickets at a loss for events such as the Latvia-Slovakia hockey game Monday night.

They know now what U.S. athletes are proving on the ice and snow these are America's Games.

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