It was a dreary scene. Ever since the U.S. speed skating team—rather, the 31 members of the team who had chosen to follow Coach Dianne Holum—had arrived in Trondheim, Norway on Oct. 17, it had rained or snowed every day for 11 days. It was raining now—a cold autumn downpour that chilled the skaters to the marrow as they did laps on the 400-meter outdoor rink. Their blades made long scythe-like slashes in the film of rainwater covering the ice, slashes that disappeared an instant after the skaters had passed. The skaters were squinting in the rain, listening to the slickered Holum shout out their splits. "Thirty-eight point six," she called to one. "Thirty-nine, four," Mike Crowe, Holum's assistant, yelled to another. One of the skaters fell on a turn and got up cursing, drenched. The rain continued to come down through the two-hour workout. Afterward, cold and tired, the skaters faced the half-mile walk back to the Hotel Transit-ten in the wet dark.
There was no change in the weather during the night, and the next day, when the speed skaters took their morning jog, they ran in a steady drizzle. They were at the halfway point of their 22-day European training stint, the faraway location of which was made necessary when officials of the Olympic authority in Lake Placid, N.Y. failed in their efforts to open the Olympic oval for the U.S. team on the agreed-upon date, Oct. 16. As each of the 22 days passed, it was meticulously crossed off the workout calendar posted on Holum's hotel room door. To make matters worse, the trip was costing each of these 31 Olympic hopefuls some $1,600. The mood? "I hate the food, hate the weather; we're stuck in a hotel in the middle of nowhere, it's expensive and the ice sucks," summed up one skater. "What's to complain about?"
That same day 15 other members of the U.S. speed skating team were training in Inzell, West Germany, sharing the 400-meter oval there with skaters from several other countries. The sky was bright blue, the foliage was red, and colorful flowers grew from the balconies of the picturesque Bavarian houses in the village. Some of the U.S. skaters had been in Inzell since Sept. 29, and it had been a good fall—fine weather and productive workouts. Most of the skaters were staying in guest rooms above a local travel agent's garage, living on approximately $15 a day, feeding themselves on such staples as fried sausages and spaghetti. Twice a day the Americans got out on the ice, but as they were reeling off as many as 700 400-meter laps per week, there was no one calling out their splits, studying their technique, recording them on videotape. Said Heinz Mayerbüchler, the caretaker of the rink at Inzell, "We have 13 teams training here this fall: the Canadians, French, Scots, Italians, Dutch, Austrians, Swedes, Norwegians, Romanians, South Koreans, Poles, Finns and, of course, Americans. The U.S. group is the first I've seen come here without a coach."
Three-and-a-half months before the Olympics, virtually all the top male speed skaters in America were going it alone. The mood? Defiant and resentful. "In Norway are all the skaters who were dissatisfied that they did not make the world team last January," said Nick Thometz, 20, the best sprinter on the U.S. team and one of those training in Inzell. "So they hollered for a new coach and a new program. They were a majority, but it's odd that the best people had no say."
"We've got a funny situation in America," added 1976 Olympic 1,000-meter gold medalist Peter Mueller, a former U.S. coach who's now trying an on-ice comeback. "Our coach, Bob Corby, is back in Madison [Wis.], and we're here in Inzell by ourselves. There's a lot of friction on the U.S. team."
That's putting it mildly. Less than four years after its glorious showing in Lake Placid, the American speed skating program has fallen on its keister. The ruling body in the sport, the United States International Speedskating Association (USISA), has been struck by internal dissension over its coaching selections, and hamstrung by a lack of money, the result of incompetent fund raising. Depending on whom you ask, young talent either isn't there—or it's there and not being developed. One thing everyone agrees on: There are no up-and-coming Eric Heidens on the U.S. team; he, remember, won an unprecedented five individual gold medals in the 1980 Olympics. Nor, probably, is there a Leah Poulos-Mueller, Peter's wife, who in 1980 won two silvers. There may not even be a Beth Heiden, who took home a bronze from Lake Placid. Indeed, the U.S. skaters even stand a chance of coming up empty at the Games in Sarajevo. That hasn't happened to American speed skaters since 1956. Says Holum, a four-time Olympic medalist herself, "Nobody knows about us; nobody cares. I thought, after Eric, the sport would start to grow more in the U.S. But there's more to it, I guess, than having a champion."
American speed skating has long been something of a mystery. Though relatively few U.S. athletes participate in it—250 by latest count—speed skating has provided the U.S. with more Winter Olympic medals, 38, than any other sport. (Mind you, with five men's events ranging from 500 meters to 10,000 meters, and four women's events from 500 to 3,000, there are more medals at stake in speed skating than in other winter sports.) In fact, the first medal awarded in the Winter Olympics went to a U.S. speed skater, Charles Jewtraw, who won the 500 in the 1924 Games in Chamonix, France. That seemed to set a trend.
U.S. speed skating, drawing its stars almost entirely from the Midwest, thrived thereafter without fanfare, without financial support and without facilities. Until the Lake Placid oval opened in 1978, the only 400-meter speed skating rink in the U.S. was in the Milwaukee suburb of West Allis. Holland, by contrast, has 10 such rinks. Future gold medalists like Holum and Anne Henning grew up skating on flooded football fields in suburban towns, which made U.S. speed skaters seem the very embodiment of the Olympic ideal, showing once every four years that hard work, sacrifice and talent could overcome just about anything.
Which is exactly what will have to happen if any of the U.S. skaters is to come home from Sarajevo with a medal. Before overcoming the powerful Soviets, East Germans, Dutch, Swedes and Norwegians, American speed skaters must first contend with some rather fierce infighting and backbiting within their own organization. "These kids don't excel because of USISA but in spite of it," says Corby, a former U.S. co-coach, who, along with Mueller, quit that post during last winter's World Sprint Championships. "I tell you, dealing with those guys is like dealing with a bunch of Cub Scouts. Except the Cub Scouts would be a lot more organized. What they're doing to the sport is criminal."
That's one opinion, not without support. The countering one, as expressed by a couple of "those guys"—USISA President George Howie and board member Gene Sandvig—is that the coaching team of Corby and Mueller was not successful in developing the current crop of young U.S. skaters, particularly the girls; that the majority of team members were disenchanted; and that Corby and Mueller had resigned of their own volition. Says Howie, "For the last year Corby and Mueller and Sandvig couldn't get along. When you're working for somebody, you can bend a little and try to work things out or you can quit."