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United States leads medal count at Vancouver Games

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 20, 2010; D07

VANCOUVER, B.C. -- Canadian Olympic officials can't believe what they keep seeing when they look up around town. The sun has been shining -- a switch from the early days of the Winter Games -- but it's not the clear skies that have them scratching their heads.

The nation that invested $100 million and made a public push to win the most medals awarded here continually has been forced to watch U.S. athletes climbing atop podiums they hoped Canadians would assume more frequently.

The 20 medals the United States has won after eight of the 17 days in the Winter Games are seven more than second-place Germany, and stand nine ahead of the pace set at the U.S. team's best-ever Games, when it won 34 medals at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. The stunning numbers give Team USA hope that it can win the overall medal table for the first time since the 1932 Winter Games in Lake Placid.

Norway has won 10 medals and Canada, eight.

"Hats off to the Americans," Chris Rudge, the Canadian Olympic Committee's chief executive and secretary general, said Friday. "They are running away with things right now. . . . I've said that to my American colleagues: You're doing darn good."

And it's really messing with Canada's expensive plan, the one called the "Own the Podium" program. Asked whether the locals would catch up over the Games' second half, Rudge noted that some of the nation's best events were to come, speculating that Canadians would accrue eight or nine medals over the Games' last four or five days. Yet Rudge also shed some of organizers' seemingly relentless optimism thus far, acknowledging the United States might be too far ahead to catch.

"It's going to be difficult," he said. "I'm not going to be Pollyanna-ish on this. They've got a 10-medal lead on us. . . . It's not a surprise that they're doing well, but that they're doing this well is maybe a touch of a surprise."

So far, nearly everything has gone according to plan, and then some. U.S. officials caution that a slow-down to the medal glut might be in store. To date, the United States has won in virtually every case in which Americans have been heavily favored -- think Shani Davis, Shaun White and Lindsey Vonn. U.S. officials also have delighted in the emergence of several surprises, including Andrew Weibrecht, Julia Mancuso (twice), Bryon Wilson and J.R. Celski. And, finally, question marks have turned into exclamation points, recent medal winners Evan Lysacek, Bode Miller and Chad Hedrick being the most significant among them.

"Athletes pick up the momentum," said Mike English, the U.S. Olympic Committee's chief of sport performance. "We wanted to make sure it was there. It becomes a rally cry. It's easy to get pumped up by it."

The good news has conveniently deflected attention from the international relations and management problems the USOC was struggling to address just weeks before these Games, when it brought in Scott Blackmun as its chief executive and vowed to reach out to members of the International Olympic Committee it feared it had alienated.

A bonus for USOC officials: U.S. athletes, in a welcome shift from the 2006 Winter Games, have shown wholehearted enthusiasm for competition and class on medal stands, and have generally avoided controversy. In 2006, Lindsey Jacobellis lost a gold medal after hot-dogging on the last jump of the snowboard cross. Jeret "Speedy" Peterson got into a bar fight and was sent home. Miller, who failed to win any medals, rebuffed reporters and boasted about skiing drunk. And speedskating stars Hedrick and Davis feuded. After those Games, USOC officials instituted "athlete ambassador" seminars that addressed conduct and Olympic preparation. They required that all U.S. Olympians attend them.

The only hitch came Friday, when a photograph published on a tabloid Web site that showed U.S. bronze medal winner Scott Lago, a snowboarder, allowing a young woman to bite his medal while he held it below his waist. The USOC did not take disciplinary action, but Lago reportedly was considering going home voluntarily.

Hedrick, who criticized Davis at the previous Games for failing to skate on the team relay, could hardly have been more gracious when he and Davis shared the medal stand after the 1,000-meter race Wednesday, a day during which Americans won a record total of three golds and six medals overall.

"I'm proud to be an American and proud to represent my country every time I step on the ice," Hedrick said, noting that he realized many Americans had watched him and Davis on television. "We work hard to make them proud."

The USOC spent nearly $55 million preparing its athletes for these Games, a boost in funding by 50 percent over what it spent on Salt Lake and Turin.

Despite the surprising medal surge, the U.S. team will still be hard-pressed to match the 34 it won in Salt Lake eight years ago. Saturday, though, could be another big day with Apolo Anton Ohno seeking to surpass Bonnie Blair's American Winter Games medal record of six in the 1,000; Davis and Hedrick skating again in the 1,500 and Vonn and Mancuso squaring off in the super-G.

As the week goes on, medal possibilities thin out. Meantime, Germany, Norway and other cold-weather powers will pick up medals in many of the Nordic events in which the United States does not generally excel. Canada eyes medals in speedskating, short track, hockey and the sliding sports.

"Thirty-four medals is tough," English said. "We did that on home soil, and we didn't want the pressure of that kind of medal count on our delegation, on our athletes. Here we've tried to focus on performance. If you focus on performance the medals will come."

The Canadians modeled their medal program on what the Americans did in preparation for the Salt Lake Olympics, as well as what European nations and Australia have done in advance of other Olympic Games.

"The U.S. is executing superbly," Rudge said, "whether that's a tribute to the program they had heading into Salt Lake City . . . [or] the nature of Americans really to be able to exist in the moment.

"Or maybe," Rudge added, "they're upset at us and want to rent our podium for a while."

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