The United States Olympic Committee does not publicly state a goal for how many medals it hopes to win in a given Games. But this certainly wasn't its vision.
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Ted Ligety is an American skiing legend, winner of a pair of gold medals. Sunday, after the first of his two runs in the giant slalom — a disastrous trip down the hill as the defending Olympic champion — he said the following: “No explanation for that.”
As we enter the final week of the Pyeongchang Winter Games, drape those words over the entirety of the United States contingent. The gold medals from Jamie Anderson and Red Gerard and Chloe Kim and Shaun White in snowboarding seem ages ago. The gold from Mikaela Shiffrin in giant slalom was, somehow, tempered by her miss of the medal stand in slalom, an event in which she essentially has lapped the field.
Beyond that, we wait.
What we have here — so far — is not a full-on American medal drought. But the crops need some coaxing. Through the end of the day Sunday in South Korea, Team USA had accumulated 10 medals in the nine days that hardware has been distributed here. The Netherlands (population: 17 million) had more. Austria, which has fewer people than New Jersey, had the same. Canada, which would have to spawn a few million people to match California, has many more. Russia — or, what Russian athletes are here after so many were banned for past doping violations — has 11.
Germany? It has nine golds alone. Norway? We can’t even make out the red and blue on their uniforms from this far back. That would be 26 medals.
In the past four Winter Olympics, the U.S. has finished second, first, second and second in total medals. In each of those Games, Americans have won at least nine gold medals. Now, they stand tied for sixth in medals with France and Austria.
Enjoyment of the Olympics shouldn’t be defined by American success, and even the slightest bit of pure nationalism seems kind of scary these days. But, in an athletic sense — and an athletic sense only — let’s get jingoistic for just a moment. So many of the athletes we have grown accustomed to seeing draped in the flag instead have been draped in disappointment.
Lindsey Vonn skied like the Olympic champion she is, then made one fateful mistake that cost her a medal in super-G. Former Olympic gold medalist Shani Davis looked like an also-ran in the 1,500-meter speedskating, an event in which he owns two silver medals. Lindsey Jacobellis led for much of the final in snowboardcross, but was passed not once, not twice, but three times to finish fourth. Erin Hamlin produced the first medal for an American woman in luge four years ago, carried the flag in Opening Ceremonies here — and finished sixth in her race, then was left off the team relay.
It’s not just the established stars, either. Let’s play a little game: Match the quote with the athlete.
1. “I just don’t know what it takes to make a perfect race.”
2. “Fourth is definitely bittersweet.”
3. “It was rough. Nothing really clicked together.”
4. “My goal was definitely to try to be challenging for a medal here. … Way out of it now.”
A. Freestyle skier Maggie Voisin
B. Ligety, in between giant slalom runs
C. Speedskater Joey Mantia
D. Figure skater Nathan Chen
Answers: It doesn’t really matter. There’s enough dejection to go around.
(Don’t worry. I’ll put the answers toward the end.)
This isn’t a crisis, and no, the norovirus did not engulf the American team. We’re not to 1988 standards, when a six-medal performance in Calgary resulted in the Steinbrenner Commission, which placed pressure on the USOC to start — oh, I don’t know — winning medals.
It’s reasonable to point out that eight Americans have finished fourth and nine more have finished fifth. (It’s also reasonable to point out that there are no medals for fourth or fifth.) Either way, we’re deep enough in competition here to evaluate the performance thus far.
In the history of the Winter Olympics — dating from 1924 in Chamonix, France — only Norway has won more medals than the U.S. The last time the Americans failed to finish either first or second in total medals was 1998 in Nagano, Japan. There, the U.S. won a total of 13 medals — same as in 1994 in Lillehammer, Norway — and finished tied for sixth.
But after leading the medal count eight years ago in Vancouver with 37, an astonishing total, and following that up with 28 more in Sochi, the expectations for every American winter team are much higher. The addition of snowboarding certainly has helped. Five of the nine U.S. medals here have come from various snowboard disciplines — with the potential for more to come.
But what might reasonably be called “traditional” Winter Olympic sports? Not really. There have been no medals from long-track speed skating, only Shiffrin’s gold from the slopes, a team bronze in figure skating, a silver from luger Chris Mazdzer — and nothing but slight stumbles and bumbles from just about every venue.
The United States Olympic Committee does not publicly state a goal for how many medals it hopes to win in a given Games. But this certainly wasn’t its vision.
Take one measuring stick, the pre-Olympics predictions from The Associated Press. This isn’t a science, of course, just an educated guess. But the AP asked each of its writers to pick the medals in the sport she or he covers. The total tally: 40, which seems overly optimistic even if the Americans were performing to full capacity here. Still, by the end of Sunday, the AP thought the U.S. would have 18 medals by this point — twice as many as it actually does.
(Time for our quiz answers: 1-C, 2-A, 3-D and 4-B.)
There is, however, some hopeful news: The coming week brings Vonn (and Shiffrin) in the downhill and Shiffrin (and Vonn) in the combined. The women’s hockey team should battle Canada for a gold medal. Elana Meyers Taylor and Jamie Greubel Poser each could contend in women’s bobsled. Freestyle skiing could produce a men’s sweep in the halfpipe, led by defending gold medalist David Wise.
There’s a week left. There are medals still out there. There’s reason for optimism, but there’s some work to do.