Every one kept looking for someone to blame. The Russians offered conspiracy theories involving the NHL and corporate interests; the South Koreans offered up accusations of incompetent judging; the Canadians first painted themselves the victims of vote-swapping and then, as the hockey tournament wound to a close, offered up the novel idea that the world hates Canadians. Boycotts were threatened, temperatures rose, yet apart from all the fiery complaints lay the not-so-subtle subtext of the 2002 Winter Olympics: The U.S. won medal after surprise medal in Salt Lake City—10 gold and 34 overall, more winter medals than it had won before (13 in 1994 and '98), in fact—and made the rest of the world look bad. Who's responsible?
So many, it seems, had a hand in it. Blame New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, who chaired the U.S. Olympic Committee commission that in 1989 recommended a massive infusion of money and support for various winter sports, and the USOC, which adopted that recommendation, provided millions over the following decade plus $40 million over the last four years just in preparation for the Salt Lake City Games. Blame the International Olympic Committee, which, in its quest to skew younger and more female, admitted America-friendly sports like aerial skiing in '94 and snowboarding and women's hockey in '98. Blame U.S. winter sports federations, which hired superior coaches from overseas and recruited a rainbow coalition of talented athletes from summer sports and Sun Belt states.
Blame winter sports boosters like former U.S. Olympic luger Bonny Warner, who not only pushed to get skeleton and women's bobsled admitted to this year's Games—events that yielded three gold and one silver medal for America—but also lured Alabama native Vonetta Flowers from the running track to the bobsled run and trained her. In Salt Lake City, Flowers, the brakeman for driver Jill Bakken, became the first African-American to win Winter Olympic gold. "My goal was to make the Summer Olympics," said Flowers, 28, a former long jumper and sprinter, "but God had a different plan for me."
A different plan is exactly what the USOC needed to turn the U.S. into a Winter Games powerhouse. After American athletes won a paltry six medals at the 1988 Olympics—causing Steinbrenner, a former USOC vice president, to erupt at the team's futility—U.S. Olympic officials realized that they had to discard conventional wisdom and their reliance on the limited talent pool found in the northern and mountain states. They started thinking and looking outside the box. Flowers, who responded to a bobsled flyer at the 2000 U.S. track and field trials in Sacramento, wasn't the only Southerner competing in the bobsled in Salt Lake City. Todd Hays, a Texas-born former linebacker for Tulsa, came to the sport after his brother saw a recruiting ad on TV. He drove his four-man sled to a silver medal last week, ending a 46-year U.S. medal drought in men's races. In the sled with him was brake-man Garrett Hines, an African-American former Southern Illinois tailback raised in Tennessee.
Indeed, the fortnight in Salt Lake City revealed that the Winter Olympics had undergone a face-lift—one that not only removed wrinkles but also added some much needed color. Speed skaters Derek Parra of San Bernardino, Calif., and Jennifer Rodriguez of Miami became the first Mexican-American and Cuban-American, respectively, to win a medal at a Winter Games, and Apolo Ohno's gold and silver medals in short-track speed skating made him the most decorated Japanese-American Winter Olympian.
"The Winter Olympics have always basically been the white Olympics," says the 39-year-old Warner, whose best finish in three Olympics was sixth in 1988. "I hope the size of this success and the diversity will wake up the country, wake the sleeping giant. When I went to the track and field Olympic trials to recruit athletes for bobsled, none of them believed it was possible. Now they will. Three quarters of the athletes there could have been competitive in a whole host of winter sports. Give me the people who didn't make the quarterfinals in the 100-meter sprint, and I'll give you a whole bunch of medalists in bobsled, speed skating and skeleton in four to eight years. That depth of talent in the U.S. has never been tapped."
If sprinters can become Winter Olympians, so can kids wheeling around on in-line skates and skateboards. U.S. speed skater KC Boutiette is a former champion in-line skater whose switch to long-track speed skating in 1993 served as a clarion call for all alterna-jocks to take a spin in the old man's car. The American sweep in men's halfpipe snowboarding had its roots in every parking garage and stairwell where skateboarders roll. Silver medal-winning doubles luger Brian Martin began his Olympic journey by oiling the wheels on his street luge and sliding down asphalt. Sixteen of the 34 U.S. medals in Salt Lake City came in sports introduced or re-introduced to the Games since '88—snowboarding (5), short track (3), skeleton (3), freestyle skiing (3), women's ice hockey (1) and women's bobsled (1).
Nowhere was the infusion of new Olympic blood more evident than in speed skating: Of the 11 medals won by Americans in that sport, a record for the U.S., seven were earned by former in-liners Ohno, Parra, Rodriguez and Joey Cheek. Before Boutiette, says Parra, "the Olympics wasn't even a thought for in-line skaters."
Of those skaters Parra most fully embodies the Winter Olympic team's rags-to-riches transformation. Parra, 31, had spent almost all of the past 14 months away from his wife, Tiffany, and their newborn daughter, Mia, in order to train in Utah, often wondering if he shouldn't join them in Orlando. Unlike the middle-class heroes usually celebrated in the Winter Games, Parra grew up working-class, roller-skating to disco at a San Bernardino rink. His only contact with the Games was watching them on TV, except for the time that Parra, then 16, approached speed skating god and champion cyclist Eric Heiden after a bicycle race in Redlands, Calif. Parra asked Heiden if he could have his race numbers. Heiden signed them and sent the boy on his way.
A year later Parra left home to pursue a career in in-line. He trained in Florida, taking a 4 a.m. to noon job at a McDonald's because it allowed him to train, and it meant he could eat burgers out of the garbage to save money. He won 18 gold medals, including one at the in-line marathon at the 1995 Pan Am Games despite being hit by the pace car during the race. However, intent on the Olympics, he made the switch to the ice in 1996. Despite a slight, 5'4" frame, he quickly won a spot on the national team thanks to his power and dedication.