Tracee Hamilton - Sports Columnist

Johnny Spillane becomes first American to medal in Olympic Nordic combined

Enjoy an up close and personal look at the action in Canada.
By Tracee Hamilton
Monday, February 15, 2010

WHISTLER, B.C. More cowbell. Johnny Spillane has finally given this country a reason to stock up on the winter sports staple, so drop the bread and toilet paper, Washington. More cowbell.

Spillane won a silver medal Sunday in Nordic combined -- the United States' first medal ever in the discipline that combines ski jumping and cross-country skiing. He was leading until being passed by France's Jason Lamy Chappuis near the finish line. The 0.4 second margin was the closest finish in the sport in Olympic history.

"I was just glad there wasn't anybody else coming through at that point because I was pretty tired," said Spillane, 29.

American Todd Lodwick led much of the race before falling to fourth, behind bronze medalist Alessandro Pittin of Italy.

"I gave it my all; I left it all out there," Lodwick said. "Fourth is probably the worst number to be."

Bill Demong, starting in 24th after a poor showing in the ski jump, began the race 1 minute 20 seconds behind the leader and fought his way to sixth place.

"I was toast on the last lap," said Demong, 29. "After a disappointing jump, I was just going for broke."

Timing is everything, and the dramatic finish happened at the perfect moment for the sport. With Alpine skiing canceled for the day -- again -- NBC had plenty of air time to devote to Nordic sports, and probably plenty of shots of cowbell-ringing fans. They are a staple at skiing competitions the world over (you can even get a cowbell app for your mobile phone), but at the Olympics, the United States hasn't had many reasons -- beyond Christopher Walken's instructions -- to ring peal over its Nordic programs. Before Sunday, no American had ever won an Olympic Nordic combined medal. No American has ever won an Olympic biathlon medal. One American, once, won an Olympic cross-country medal.

This is not a tragedy. Americans do not have to be good at everything, much as we sometimes think we do. We are better at many more sports than, say, the Norwegians, who put the "Nor" in Nordic. Football and basketball are examples. And yet the Norwegians seem happy with their place in the sporting world.

But if the United States is going to fund programs such as Nordic combined and biathlon, it ought at least to be respectable. I have long thought that the Nordic sports should be a fish-or-cut-bait proposition for America, and once Uncle Sam bought new tackle and fancy lures and threw some lines off the pier, the catch is finally coming in. Cutting their losses and reallocating those precious Olympic funds to other programs would certainly be an option, but probably not the best one.

The USOC's increased attention to Nordic sports has already paid off in World Cup podiums and world championship medals. But it's the Olympic glory that's crucial -- because let's face it: that's when Americans (read: sponsors) are paying attention.

International sports federations want to see America competitive as well. They want to compete in front of U.S. crowds and rake in U.S. dollars (just as soon as we print some more).

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