Americans hope to use home-field advantage in 2002
Posted: Sun February 22, 1998 at 10:57 AM ET
NAGANO, Japan (KRT) -- The unofficial goal set by some very official U.S. Olympic Committee folks before the Nagano Winter Games began was 18 U.S. medals.
They weren't even close.
But the disappointments -- men's hockey (in more ways than one), men's figure skating, snowboarding and bobsled -- didn't overshadow the fact the 13 medals won before the Olympic flame was extinguished Sunday night equals the most ever by a U.S. winter team.
Looking four years into the future, when Salt Lake City will give the United States a home-ice advantage in 2002 such as Japan enjoyed this winter, there is a nucleus of athletes who could produce unprecedented results.
"Most of these athletes are just developing and will be around for another Olympics," said Dick Schultz, executive director of the USOC and one who had higher expectations.
The team that U.S. women's hockey captain Cammi Granato led into the stadium to end the Nagano Games not only equaled the record medal total set four years ago in Lillehammer, it won six golds, tying Lillehammer and Lake Placid in 1932 and '80. But it also suffered the embarrassment of some as yet unidentified men's hockey players busting up their rooms in the Olympic Village.
"I envy the way Japanese society works, the way they respect each other," Granato said. "They tape a $1 bill to the wall when it's lost. My brother Robby left his new camera and a bunch of lenses on the bullet train in Karuizawa the other day, and it was all returned to him.
"Maybe our men's team didn't realize that's what they were in the middle of here, but the rest of us had been here longer. I hope I get to have this experience again."
The gold won by Granato's team -- also winner of the '98 Wheaties box honor -- along with the golds of mogul skier Jonny Moseley, aerialists Eric Bergoust and Nikki Stone, and the bronzes of halfpipe snowboarders Shannon Dunn and Ross Powers, came in sports added since the 1988 Calgary Olympics. That's when the United States won just six medals.
Picabo Street's lone medal in alpine skiing, a gold in the Super G, represented a net decline of three medals from Lillehammer in that sport. On the other hand, the silver and bronze in doubles luge were the first ever in that sport.
"It was just so unbelievable walking down the runway to the stage" where he got his bronze, said Palo Alto luger Brian Martin. "All those people were excited and cheering for my teammates. But while people have obviously been talking about the medal count, which is great, the most important things have been about having a good time and doing your best. These Olympics were exactly what I wanted them to be."
This U.S. Olympic team was different than its predecessors.
It was deeper in talent but had fewer heroes such as speed skater Eric Heiden, who accounted for five of the six golds in Lake Placid; or alpine skier Tommy Moe, who won a gold and silver in Lillehammer.
Speedskater Chris Witty, reluctant inheritor of "the next Bonnie Blair" mantle, was the only U.S. athlete with two medals, a silver in the 1,000 meters and a bronze in the 1,500.
Overall performances, obscured by the medal focus, were much improved. The United States had 61 top-10 finishes in Nagano, nearly a 50 percent improvement over the previous best 43 in Lillehammer.
"The performances here showed what we all believe about this team, that it had tremendous depth," said U.S. mission chief Paul George.
That is significant, because the next Games will be in Salt Lake City, where the U.S. team will be expected to get a medal boost the way it did twice in Lake Placid and the way the Japanese team, which had a total of 13 winter medals in its previous history, did over the past fortnight by winning 10 medals in Nagano.
George predicted 20 medals in Salt Lake.
Martin is uncertain about how much longer he'll race in luge, and twice-injured Street's alpine career may not last four more years considering the danger of the downhill. Bergoust and Stone will be 32 and 30, respectively, in 2002.
But figure skating champion Tara Lipinski is just 15, and although she's being mum about her Olympic future, some of those around her think she likes the competition too much to quit. Michelle Kwan, 17, announced as soon as the silver medal was hung around her neck that she'd be back for Salt Lake City.
The speed skating team, frozen in a past time by the sudden emergence of the clap skate last season, did better overall than Lillehammer although Witty's two medals were the U.S. athletes' only appearances on the podium. They had 15 top-10 finishes compared to five in Lillehammer. Six of those top-10 finishers are expected to skate in Salt Lake City. Led by three new national marks by KC Boutiette, six U.S. records were set in Nagano.
Coach Ben Smith estimates that 12 to 14 of his women's hockey players will want to come back.
"Women's hockey reminds me of what [men's] hockey was like in the late '50s and '60s," he said. "The sport is keyed to a four-year cycle, and you have to graduate from college in the right year. Some of the players on this team had put off their lives because they saw this coming. I don't know if that will happen again."
Smith will go to Anaheim next month for the women's national age group hockey championships, watching 14, 15 and 16-year-olds who could be ready for Salt Lake City.
Schultz said he favors keeping NHL players despite the incident at the Olympic Village in which hockey players -- still unidentified -- trashed three apartment rooms with fire extinguishers.
"We expect all our athletes to be role models," he said.
Most of them were.
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