February 26, 2006

Big-name flops take shine off of US medal haul

By Nelson Graves

TURIN (Reuters) - Loads of medals and lots of flops.

The U.S. team won more hardware at the Turin Games than at any other Winter Olympics on foreign soil.

But the medal haul cannot mask a distinct bitterness that the stars, led by Alpine skier Bode Miller, did not shine.

"An incredible performance," U.S. Olympic Committee chief Jim Scherr said before adding: "This team has been viewed a little bit less than that because of the high expectations."

The United States ended with 25 medals, including nine gold -- putting it second to Germany's total haul of 29.

That was down from 34 at Salt Lake City in 2002, but the most in a Winter Olympics held outside the United States. The previous high was 13 in Lillehammer in 1994 and Nagano in 1998.

But the numbers tell only half the story.

Top of the flops was Miller, who was expected to be a contender in all five Alpine events. Instead he failed to win a medal -- and completed only two of his races.

Speedskater Chad Hedrick copped a gold, a silver and a bronze. But because he had proudly set his sights on Eric Heiden's five gold medals in the 1980 Games, he has only himself to blame for leaving the impression he somehow failed.

U.S. Alpine skiers took only two of 30 medals awarded, while their figure skaters also won just two. Michelle Kwan did not even skate because she pulled out with a groin strain.


The U.S. men's hockey team, silver medalist in 2002, did not make the final eight.

Through the first two weeks of the Games, coverage by U.S. network NBC was down from both Salt Lake City and Nagano -- a drop that analysts put partly to U.S. stars missing their mark.

The United States failed to finish on the podium in six of 15 disciplines: biathlon, cross-country skiing, luge, Nordic combined, skeleton and ski jumping.

Scherr said both the U.S. Olympic bosses and the public had had unrealistic expectations for the high-profile athletes.

Still, someone of Miller's ilk should have been able to switch gears, he said. "You have to assume that he could get focused and perhaps perform to a higher level at these Games."

The U.S. experience was also marred by several incidents -- a freestyle skier was expelled after getting into a fight, while Miller was seen out late at night -- that prompted the nation's Olympic committee to promise to crack down on wayward athletes.

"So overall these Games have seen both mismanaged expectations and some unfortunate and unforeseen circumstances," Scherr said.

Still, U.S. bosses took solace that their athletes had more than 60 finishes in the top eight -- more than any other nation.

The speedskating and short track associations were beaming as their athletes accounted for more than half of the U.S. medals. The men's curlers took bronze -- a U.S. first.

Looking to the Vancouver Games in 2010, Scherr said: "Our job will be to support our athletes better."