Tracee Hamilton - Sports Columnist

Vonn's injury could be a painful blow for Ebersol, NBC at Vancouver Olympics

By Tracee Hamilton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 11, 2010

Lindsey Vonn seemed near tears yesterday, and I'm sure NBC's Olympics guru Dick Ebersol was having a good, long cry somewhere as well. Right or wrong, these Olympics were billed as the Vonncouver Games, and with good reason. There's no more dominant American in any of the winter sports than Vonn. It doesn't hurt that she's also smart, pretty, blonde and looks good enough in a bikini to join the models in the SI swimsuit issue.

Let's face it, that doesn't hurt at all.

Now Vonn's got a deep bruise on her shin, right where her ski boot will aggravate it every time she leans. I'm no skier, but leaning appears to be essential. And Vonn appeared to be seriously spooked by the development Wednesday at a heavily attended news conference at Vancouver's Main Press Center, where the team stopped to say hello before heading up into the mountains to begin training.

NBC, which has already self-reported an expected $200 million loss on these Games, was banking on Vonn's attempt to win five medals as a sort of Phelpsian quest. (It's no accident that she first revealed her injury to Matt Lauer on the "Today" show.) However, Michael Phelps was never shy about declaring his intention of winning a record eight gold medals in Beijing. Vonn never made any such promises, and she's not as universally strong across all five events as Phelps was in his eight.

"I'm not trying to get five medals," she said Wednesday. "I'm just trying to be Lindsey Vonn, trying to do the best I can every day."

Given the state of the U.S. women's figure skating program, the 2010 Games seemed a perfect time to throw a non-sequined heroine up the pop charts, and Vonn seemed poised to be the chosen It Girl. And she still could be. She's a tough woman who has skied through pain many times, and while she's won a kit and caboodle of World Cups and world championships, she has never won an Olympic medal. That barren spot on the mantel can have amazing recuperative powers on even the most injured star athlete.

But let's say Vonn really can't ski through the pain, and she is unable to compete, or severely curtails her intended program to perhaps one or two races. That leaves the competition for Star of These Olympics wide open.

This is the opening those Nordic competitors have been waiting for! No, I don't mean Nordic as in Norwegians; I'm talking about all those poor Nordic sports competitors who've been America's afterthought for so many years. About 30 people attended the cross-country ski team's news conference, yet about five minutes after it ended, more than 100 found their way into the room for Vonn.

For the Nordic sports, the timing is perfect. This country has never been stronger in these disciplines than it is in February 2010. An American is among the top biathletes in the world (that's cross-country skiing and shooting, by the way). The U.S. contingent is a strong medal favorite in Nordic combined (that's cross-country skiing and ski jumping). And the cross-country team is the best that we've ever sent to the Olympics.

All that's missing is the one thing America wants more than anything: a medal. Preferably gold, but silver or bronze would work, too.

The United States has never won a biathlon or Nordic combined medal in the Olympics. Bill Koch cross-country skied his way to a silver medal in the 30-kilometer freestyle race in Innsbruck in 1976, and that's the last time an American has made an Olympic podium in that sport.

And while these events don't get a tremendous amount of prime-time coverage, I can guarantee you that if Nordic combined-er Bill Demong or biathlete Tim Burke break those droughts, NBC will clear the prime-time schedule to show lots of canned footage, flag montages and tragedies overcome by good ol' American gumption.

And just like that, biathlon, Nordic combined or cross-country will be on the list of Things We Care About. That's an important list when these overlooked sports are grappling for funds and trying to keep talent coming through the pipeline.

"America loves medals, and we love medals, too, here on this team," said cross-country skier Andy Newell, a contender in the sprint events. "If we can win one, it's going to do great things for our sport, for sure. When I was younger, growing up, we heard stories about Bill Koch, but we didn't see it.

"I hope now that the younger kids can really see that it's possible, and if we win a medal, it will just add to that, that you can be an American and be just as good as any Norwegian or German skier out there."

The U.S. Nordic combined team hasn't won a medal since the discipline became an Olympic sport in 1924, but at last year's world championships, Americans won three medals.

"I feel like we've come to be one of the stronger teams out there," said Todd Lodwick, who at 33 is competing in his fifth Olympics in Nordic combined. "To watch this team go from just kind of showing up at big events to being contenders -- and [from] not winning any medals at the world championships or Olympics to having three guys who have been world champions -- has been a pretty incredible experience."

But those accomplishments would pale in comparison to doing the same thing in front of a prime-time, American television audience. If one of these anonymous athletes can break the drought, we'll have a new household name in 17 days. And Ebersol can dry his eyes.

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