Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 25, 2018

U.S. Athletes Both Disappoint And Dazzle

As the Olympic flame was extinguished Sunday, the consensus in the media was that these Games were a disappointment for the United States. If judged simply by the standard of medals won, that analysis is understandable. U.S. athletes are returning from Korea with twenty-three medals, nine gold, eight silver, and six bronze. That total left the U.S. in fourth place in the medal count, behind Norway, Germany, and Canada, and is the lowest total American medal haul since U.S. athletes stood on the podium just thirteen times twenty years ago. Considering how the Winter Olympics have grown, this year’s overall result for Team USA was quite comparable to 1998. Those Games, in Nagano, Japan, included just sixty-eight events in seven sports. PyeongChang 2018 featured one hundred two events in fifteen sports, so the number of medals awarded was a full fifty percent higher.

But while the relentless focus on the medal count may be fitting, given how commercialized the Games have become, it’s hard not to feel that it misses the whole point of the Games. Nearly three thousand athletes participated over the fortnight, so obviously the vast majority went home without a medal. The same can be said for sixty-two of the record ninety-two countries represented in PyeongChang. Lost in the spectacle of the opening ceremony are the words of the Olympic Oath, taken by one athlete, judge, and coach on behalf of all their number. Its words speak to abiding by the rules and the spirit of fair play. Its commitment is to the glory of sport and the honor of the teams. As Pierre de Coubertin said, “The most important thing is not to win but to take part!”

The father of the modern Games would no doubt be derided as a snowflake by any number of sports talk radio hosts. But as the pundits rushed to lament the shortcomings of Team USA at PyeongChang 2018, they glossed over some notable highlights and did a disservice to athletes who excelled, sometimes against all expectations.

The U.S. team did underperform in several of the high-profile sports, the ones that fans don’t need to relearn every four years. While a determined women’s team won gold in ice hockey, the U.S. men’s team, made up of college kids and aging former professionals after the NHL refused to allow its players to participate, was eliminated in the quarterfinals. In figure skating, Americans won just two bronze medals, one in the team event at the very start of the Games, and one in ice dancing for the siblings Maia and Alex Shibutani. Of the thirty-three alpine skiing medals awarded, Americans won only three. Lindsey Vonn took bronze in the downhill at what was almost certainly her last Olympics. Mikaela Shiffrin arrived in Korea with hopes of participating in five different alpine events. Weather-induced scheduling changes prevented her from doing so. Shiffrin skied in three events, winning the giant slalom and finishing second in the alpine combined, while shockingly missing the podium in the slalom, her dominant event.

But Shiffrin is just 22 years old. Assuming she stays healthy fans will likely see her racing down the slopes at another two or three of these quadrennial gatherings. In that regard Shiffrin is not alone. Chloe Kim, the bubbly snowboarder who won gold in the women’s halfpipe, is a 17-year-old teenager. She can compete at the next three Winter Olympics and still be younger than Shaun White, the now 31-year old who made up for a disappointing performance in Sochi with a largely unexpected gold in the men’s halfpipe. And before Kim won her medal, Ohio native Red Gerard, who is two months younger than his female teammate, became the first Winter Olympics medalist born in this century when he captured the first gold of these Games for Team USA in the slopestyle competition.

If the younger members of Team USA offered both brilliant performances and bright hopes for the future, older Americans demonstrated the power of perseverance. The American team of Kikkan Randall and Jessica Diggins were afterthoughts in the team sprint freestyle cross-country ski race. The United States had won but a single Nordic skiing medal – a silver in 1976 – in the history of the Winter Olympics. But on a cold night at the cross-country venue, Diggins overtook skiers from Sweden and Norway in the final straight to double America’s medal count in the sport. The pair won by improving on their semifinal time by a whopping twenty-six seconds.

But the most unlikely American medal gold of all was Team USA’s last of these Games, a gold in curling, the sport that fans fall in love with for exactly two weeks every four years. Men’s team skipper John Shuster was in his fourth Olympics. While the U.S. won bronze in 2006, the last two Games were disasters. Team USA finished last in 2010 and next-to-last in 2014. At PyeongChang, after a loss to Norway in the round robin stage, the U.S. appeared headed for another finish far from the podium. Amazingly, Shuster and his teammates did not lose again. They won their final three round-robin matches to advance to the medal round, then stunned heavily favored Canada in the semifinals before shocking Sweden, the world’s top-ranked team, in the gold medal match.

The decisive moment came in the 8th end (frame for bowlers, inning in baseball parlance), with the score tied at 5-5. That’s when Shuster sent his final stone sliding down the ice, his teammates guiding its trajectory and speed with their brooms. The U.S. rock glided into one of Sweden’s, knocking it at an angle into a second Swedish stone, with both skidding out of the scoring circles. It was a double hit worth five points that gave Team USA a commanding lead and John Shuster well-deserved redemption.

At the PyeongChang Games there were disappointments for American athletes. But there were also many moments of grace and glory, as a new generation took its place on the Olympic stage and athletes devoted to sports most fans will not think about for another four years reminded us of why they practice so hard for their brief moment in the spotlight. Finally, almost four decades after the first Miracle on Ice, John Shuster and his teammates capped it all off with another one.

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Responses

  1. Thanks for this review of the Winter Olympics, Mike. I didn’t watch any of it and now I feel like I’m up to date with the results.

    You addressed my growing discontent with the ‘Medal Count’. When the focus on the Olympic games—summer or winter—went from watching talented athletes striving to do their best, to ‘keeping score’ of what country won the most medals (emphasis on Gold medals) I started finding other ways to pass my time.

    It might be a function of age or just a personality quirk of mine, but beating the drum and shouting, “We’re #1” doesn’t cut it for me anymore now than when I played sports in school. I enjoyed participating in sports, but it was mainly an excuse not to return to an empty house after school let out. I think that we have lost the communal experience that being part of a team teaches us. Today we seem to be more enthralled by how much better our team, and to a degree individual members, is than anyone else’s in the world.

    I am grateful that we haven’t discovered life on another planet to date. It wouldn’t be long before we had some kind of contest to test our ability to dominate them.
    Ω

    • Very well put Allan. I share your view, as I assume you could tell. I remember watching the Olympics years ago and feeling like everyone I knew was of course cheering for the U.S. team, but also marveling at great performances irrespective of the nationality of the individual athlete. Whether it was Jean Claude Killy in the winter of ’68 or Nadia Comaneci in the summer of ’76, the fact that they weren’t Americans didn’t diminish our enthusiasm or awe. Times change, not always for the better.

      Thanks,
      M-

      Michael Cornelius
      603.498.527
      http://www.onsportsandlife.com

      • For one thing, we didn’t have a Demander-in-Chief, but that’s a whole other story.
        Ω

  2. Nice – thanks!


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