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Advantage USA
Brian Cazeneuve
February 04, 2002
When the Salt Lake City Winter Games open next week, the American team will shoot for a record medal haul, aided by home fans and a familiar setting
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February 04, 2002

Advantage Usa

When the Salt Lake City Winter Games open next week, the American team will shoot for a record medal haul, aided by home fans and a familiar setting

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Host country

Medals

Previous Games Medals

Improvement

1932

Lake Placid

U.S.

12

6

+6

1936

Garmisch-Partenkirchen

Germany

6

2

+4

1948

St. Moritz

Switzerland

10

3

+7

1952

Oslo

Norway

16

10

+6

1956

Cortina D'Ampezzo

Italy

3

2

+1

1960

Squaw Valley

U.S.

10

7

+3

1964

Innsbruck

Austria

12

6

+6

1968

Grenoble

France

9

7

+2

1972

Sapporo

Japan

3

0

+3

1976

Innsbruck

Austria

6

5

+1

1980

Lake Placid

U.S.

12

10

+2

1984

Sarajevo

Yugoslavia

1

0

+1

1988

Calgary

Canada

5

4

+1

1992

Albertville

France

9

2

+7

1994

Lillehammer

Norway

26

20

+6

1998

Nagano

Japan

10

5

+5

Legend has it that in 1847, near what is now 600 South Street in downtown Salt Lake City, gold prospectors heading west happened upon a lone cedar tree. One after another they gazed around at the bleak landscape, despaired at the lack of vegetation and fresh water and continued on, certain that this was no place to search for riches.

Today's U.S. Olympians see a bounty in Salt Lake City. "It's a gold mine having the Olympics right here," says Picabo Street, who has lived in neighboring Park City since August 1999 and hopes to complete her comeback from right knee surgery and a broken left femur by winning her third Olympic skiing medal. "If the Olympics weren't in the U.S., I probably wouldn't have gone through the effort of making a full recovery. The courses are spitting distance from my house."

With the Games set to open on Feb. 8, expectations have never been so high for American winter athletes. Last April, the U.S. Olympic Committee projected that Americans would win 20 medals in Salt Lake. Said USOC interim CEO Scott Blackmun, "If we end up winning 19, I'll be disappointed." As incentive the USOC tied employee bonuses to the medal haul in Salt Lake and promised to pay American medal-winners $25,000 for gold, $15,000 for silver and $10,000 for bronze (increased from $15,000, $10,000 and $7,500 in Nagano). Let the prospecting begin.

On the face of it, 20 medals seems like a halfpipe dream. U.S. athletes have never won more than 13 medals at a Winter Olympics, having earned that many at Lillehammer in 1994 and at Nagano. However, the number of medal events has swelled from 38 in 1980 to 78 in 2002, and America has more contenders than ever before: not only a wealth of good skaters, skiers and snowboarders but also strong entries in women's bobsled, which will make its Games debut, and skeleton, which returns to the Olympics after a 54-year absence.

Just as important, U.S. athletes will benefit from their familiarity with the language, food, time zone and venues in Salt Lake City. At the Winter Olympics the home field advantage is irrefutable. Not since the Swiss seized one medal at the first Winter Games, in Chamonix, France, in 1924, and then came up empty four years later in St. Moritz has the host nation failed to win more medals on home snow and ice than it did at the previous Olympics (chart, page 106). At the 16 Winter Games since 1932, the U.S. has placed among the top three medal-winning nations five times—including at all three Olympics held in America.

To prepare for these Games, U.S. athletes have flocked to the Salt Lake City area over the last few years. Of some 200 members of the U.S. team, only three are Utah-born, but 38 of them have moved to the state to train, including defending aerial skiing gold medalist Eric Bergoust, who arrived in 1997 and resides three miles from the Olympic site at Deer Valley. In addition to building camaraderie with one another, the relocated athletes have been able to practice at and learn the quirks of the facilities at which they'll compete during the Games. "It's a leg up for us to get used to the Olympic ice day in and day out," says speed skater Derek Parra, who moved from Wisconsin to Utah in December 2000, leaving behind his wife, Tiffany, who was carrying their first child. "This oval is unique, and when we walk in during the Games, it won't shock us if we've been training there six days a week."

How different can the Utah Olympic Oval be from, say, the $300 million M-Wave speed skating rink in Nagano? Apart from costing only one tenth as much as the M-Wave (and having an even smaller fraction of the M-Wave's charm), the Utah rink has a much lower ceiling, which permits the building's heating system to keep the arena reasonably warm without compromising the ice's refrigeration system. The warm air above creates a thicker layer of water atop the ice than at most speed skating venues, allowing for maximum glide while the skater's grip stays firm because of the hard layers underneath. The altitude—at 4,675 feet the Utah rink is the world's highest indoor oval—helps create denser, more consistent ice, and the thin air promotes faster times in the shorter events.

All of which means that you're better off if you've practiced there. "This is the fastest oval in the world, hands down," says U.S. Olympian Joey Cheek, a 500- and 1,000-meter specialist who has lived in Park City since last May. "If you don't get used to those speeds, you won't be able to hold it or get through the corners."

American athletes in several outdoor sports also feel they have gained an edge by training at Games sites. "Soldier Hollow has its secrets," U.S. biathlete Jay Hakkinen says of his venue, which has cross-country trails and a shooting range. "I try to walk the course every day. There are no killer hills like a lot of courses. It's a fast course, so you really have to carry your speed and know which hills to go hard on." Adds Jeremy Teela, one of Hakkinen's teammates, "Different parts of the shooting range have different wind patterns. You need experience on a particular range to figure them out."

The home edge may be less significant elsewhere. The skeleton, bobsled and luge runs at Utah Olympic Park are easier to navigate than most tracks. "No matter how much you train on it, the advantage is small," grumbles Jim Shea, the 1999 world skeleton champion, who's better suited to more technically demanding layouts. While knowledge of the ferocious downhill course (page 116) could help American skiers, courses for the other Alpine events won't even be determined until the night before Olympic races are held. For every skier in the top 15 of the World Cup standings in a given discipline, a piece of paper bearing the name of that skier's country is placed in a bowl. If, for example, the name Switzerland is picked in the giant slalom drawing, the Swiss can select a course-setter who will presumably groom and arrange the giant slalom course to mirror the conditions that suit their team. The GS run in Park City could thus end up resembling the one in St. Moritz.

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