- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 26, 2002

The first Winter Olympics I ever laid eyes on were the '64 Games in Innsbruck, Austria. We won one gold medal, six medals in all. By "we," of course, I mean the U.S. of A.
Four years later, in Grenoble, France, we also won a single gold medal. For the longest time, I figured this was Just The Way It Was. That every four years the U.S. got its stocking cap handed to it by the frozen food section of the world. For whatever reason, America and the Winter Olympics didn't seem to mix. It was like the Tampa Bay Bucs trying to win a playoff game at Lambeau Field in January.
In the Summer Games our athletes did wondrous things, world record-breaking things. Things like breaking the men's long jump record by nearly two feet. But in the Winter Games all kinds of bad stuff would happen. A plane carrying our figure skating team would crash a few years before the Olympics. Or one of our world champion pairs skaters would get hurt at the worst possible time. Or Dan Jansen would get word of his sister's death on the morning of his first race and proceed to fall on the first turn. Or Nancy Kerrigan would get kneecapped.
Oh, we had our moments usually on skates, and occasionally on skis but for the most part the Winter Games were a humble pie in the face for the U.S. As recently as '88, one of two Games I covered, we managed only two golds and six total medals. One of our speedskaters that year, Eric Flaim, finished fourth in three events; that sticks with me as much as Bonnie Blair's and Brian Boitano's heroics.
So it might take me a while to process this latest information, that the U.S. is now a Winter Olympics power. What other conclusion is there to draw from our performance in Salt Lake City, where our athletes piled up 10 golds, 13 silvers and 11 bronzes? That's more medals than we won in four Olympics from '64 to '76.
Granted, the Winter Games have grown since then. There are many more events and many more medals. But our second-place finish is our best since '60 (when we made off with a modest 10 medals, three of them gold). And even if you eliminate the New Wave sports like snowboarding, short-track speedskating and freestyle skiing, we still wind up with seven golds, eight silvers and eight bronzes a real haul.
For a child of the '60s, this is more than a little disorienting. The U.S. might be fourth in the all-time medal standings behind Germany (in its various incarnations), Russia (ditto) and Norway but it sure doesn't feel that way. It feels like we have more in common with that ski jumper in the "Wide World of Sports" intro, the one who goes careening off the ramp. When I think of the Winter Olympics of my youth, I think of John "Misha" Petkovich jumping, falling, getting up and jumping some more and finishing fifth in figure skating. Or our lugers and bobsledders practically getting lapped by the Europeans. Or our hockey team requiring a miracle to beat the Soviets.
There's also this faint memory of figure skater Linda Fratianne having her nose redone before the '80 Games hoping, I suppose, it would improve her scores in the "artistic" category. Alas, she got nosed out for the gold by Anett Potzsch of East Germany.
For years it was like this. So you could have knocked me over with a curling stone when, after favorite Michelle Kwan faltered in the women's figure skating last week, unsung Sarah Hughes swept in and won the whole schmeer. That kind of thing has never happened to the U.S. in the Winter Olympics. Whenever there's been a crash, there's always been a burn.
Other nations, I suspect, had gotten to like the Old Order, the one where mighty America got its doors blown off every four years. That's probably what was behind Simon Barnes' parting shot in yesterday's Times of London. (We can only imagine the vitriol that was being churned out in Moscow.) Three weeks among the revelers in Salt Lake City had left Barnes sick and tired of the host country's "whooping, en masse, up-yours patriotism." He also proclaimed the Russians "utterly fed up with transformation of the Olympic Games into yet another American Festival of Victory."
It's tough, I'm sure, but somehow the world will have to deal with it. At the Winter Olympics, it's not going to have the U.S. to kick around anymore.

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