U.S. enters Vancouver Olympics as potential winter power

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 12, 2010

VANCOUVER, B.C. -- The U.S. Olympic team that parades into the Opening Ceremony of the Winter Games in Vancouver on Friday will bear, for the first time ever, the look and swagger of a winter sports powerhouse. Team USA holds medal prospects in well-known sports and obscure ones, raising at least a glimmer of hope that the United States can, for the first time in 78 years, win more medals than any other nation.

Despite its dominance at the Summer Olympics, the United States historically has been a second-tier Winter Olympics nation that has excelled largely in sports popular among U.S. television audiences, such as figure skating, hockey and snowboarding. It has been pushed around in more traditional snow pursuits by Germany, Norway, Russia, Austria and others.

But after more than a decade of trying to spur medal production from untapped winter disciplines, the U.S. Olympic Committee has finally assembled a deep, balanced team with medal hopes from ice dancing to luge to cross-country skiing. With skiing megastar Lindsey Vonn trying to recover from a recent shin injury, some sports that remain relatively obscure in the United States might be thrust to center stage.

Knocking off powerhouse Germany, which has won the overall medal count at the past three Winter Olympics, and the hometown Canadians, who invested more than $100 million in their winter athletes in hopes of making a smash at their local Games, remains a daunting proposition, but the diverse strength of the 216-member U.S. team promises good theater, serious competition and, for those who watch on television, an introduction, perhaps, to some unfamiliar cold-weather pursuits.

"It's unprecedented what we are going to Vancouver with," said Steve Roush, a former U.S. Olympic Committee chief of sports performance and now a senior consultant for TSE Consulting. "I don't think the USOC has ever fielded a delegation that from top to bottom, discipline to discipline, walks in with the capabilities the 2010 team walks in with. . . . It will be the most competitive Winter Games in recent history."

Team USA includes Vonn; record-setting speedskater Shani Davis; soul-patch adorned short track skater Apolo Ohno; and world champion figure skater Evan Lysacek; as well as a host of fast-rising stars in little-known and less-understood sports such as Nordic combined and biathlon -- two disciplines in which the United States has earned precisely zero Olympic medals in 96 years of Winter Games competition.

Like the Summer Games, the Winter Olympics are becoming more diverse and competitive as emerging countries step up their commitment and financial contributions to sport. China, in particular, has risen fast. But the need for snow and ice to excel in winter competition puts something of a ceiling on how universal the Winter Games can get -- some 80 nations participate in contrast to the more than 200 that compete in the Summer Games, a reality that leaves the United States with hope of expanding its winter sports success even as some previously unengaged nations surge.

"We haven't exactly been sitting back, either," said Michael English, who succeeded Roush last June. "Some of our breakout sports are going to add a lot of opportunities to be in medal contention."

Sports out of obscurity

Regardless of whether the United States climbs to the top of the medal table, NBC plans a significant increase in prime-time coverage of some of the lesser-known sports in which Americans have recently risen, according to Mike McCarley, senior vice president of NBC Sports. In what may be a historic first, Sunday's Nordic combined competition will get live coverage from the network, going head-to-head against the Daytona 500 on Fox Sports.

And while that development excites winter sport officials who know that television exposure and Olympic medals do more to spur public interest and corporate support than any calculated advertising campaign, it also creates some unusual concerns.

Such as explaining the nuances of some of America's newest specialties.

"There's going to have to be a lot of educating the general public," Roush said. "They're going to go, 'Nordic combined -- combined what? What's the combination?' "

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