United States wins the medal count at Vancouver Olympics with a record 37, and the impact will last into the future

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 1, 2010; A01

VANCOUVER, B.C. -- The U.S. men's hockey team lost to Canada in Sunday's gold medal game, but the Americans' silver medal put the finishing touch on a historic two weeks that have provided a major boost to the U.S. Olympic movement at a time it was in desperate need of revival.

The hockey team's silver was the 37th medal of the Vancouver Games for the United States, breaking the record for total medals won by one nation at a Winter Games set by Germany in 2002. This is also the first Winter Olympics in 78 years in which the United States has hauled in more medals than any other participant.

As the U.S. Olympic Committee forges into an uncertain economic future knowing it faces at least a 20-year gap between Olympics on U.S. soil, the implications of this year's surprising medal windfall are significant. The unexpected U.S. dominance in familiar pursuits such as Alpine skiing and the more obscure disciplines such as Nordic combined yielded important increases in television ratings, media coverage and sponsor involvement.

With the USOC bracing for continued fallout from the economic downturn, potentially decreasing or flat revenues from soon-to-be negotiated television and sponsor deals, and no home Olympics at least through 2020, Team USA's monumental overachievement brought a tide of fresh optimism.

"I can't imagine a better property to sell right now," said Mark Lewis, president and chief executive of the Olympic ticketing company Jet Set Sports, a U.S. Olympic team sponsor. "The internal politics of the Olympic movement don't matter to sponsors. At the end of the day, it's the performance of the athletes that matters."

The higher ratings won't offset the loss NBC took after paying a record $820 million for these Olympics before the recession hit, but they provided evidence to potential sponsors and bidders for the next U.S. broadcasting contract -- rights to the 2014 and 2016 Games are expected to be doled out by the end of the year -- that the Olympic product has not lost its luster.

"Our success helps us commercially," USOC Chief Executive Scott Blackmun said. "It helps us with broadcast partners. . . . Our sponsors get more value when there is more American success."

The USOC announced the signing of a new sponsor deal during the Games with the global energy company BP, while current sponsors launched campaigns in response to various athletes' successes. Visa released three commercials congratulating U.S. athletes -- Alpine skier Julia Mancuso, Nordic combined skier Johnny Spillane and snowboarder Seth Wescott -- for medals they won here.

Though Visa is a global Olympic sponsor, it also has separate sponsorship deals with the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association and many U.S. athletes. Of the 33 Winter Olympians from around the world that Visa sponsored at these Games, 11 were from Team USA.

"At the end of the day, it's a business investment for us," said Michael Lynch, Visa's head of global sponsorship management. "We are looking for a return on our investment. . . . When our athletes perform extremely well, it affords us additional opportunities."

The U.S. broadcaster, NBC, meantime, reported a 20 percent ratings increase from the 2006 Games in Turin, Italy. And its prime-time telecast twice beat "American Idol" in viewership; the first victory -- on Feb. 17, the day U.S. stars Shaun White, Lindsey Vonn and Shani Davis each earned a gold medal -- ended a streak of 222 straight nights "American Idol" had beaten its competition.

"The performance of the U.S. team has a significant impact on viewership," said Gary Zenkel, president of NBC Olympics. "The fact is, Americans love their home team. When we're in the Olympics, Team USA is everybody's home team. The [U.S. team's] success . . . has obviously really taken a hold of the country."

Officials and athletes attribute America's recent winter-sport success to a decade of targeted increases in funding and better communication and cooperation between the USOC and its various national sport governing bodies. After a string of subpar Winter Olympic performance that included a 13-medal tally at the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan (fewer medals were available then because of a smaller sports program), the USOC increased winter sports funding significantly heading into the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City. After the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, money allocated to winter sports grew by an additional 50 percent.

"In Nagano, we felt like we were a small country . . . one of the outsiders at the Winter Olympics," said Bill Demong, Olympic gold medalist in Nordic combined. "Now we're here to win."

The U.S. team won 34 medals in Salt Lake City and 25 in Turin. Maintaining the success, athletes and officials say, won't get any cheaper -- in fact, costs for everything from medical insurance to travel are rising -- yet revenue sources are not guaranteed. Though Olympic sport athletes are no longer amateurs, and free to claim winnings from various competitions, the bulk of what many earn comes through grants and sponsorships.

Unlike other national Olympic committees around the world, the USOC receives no government funding. About half of its annual funding comes from private donors and U.S. sponsors, with most of the rest coming from the television and sponsor deals that are soon up for renewal or renegotiation.

The success "didn't come out of nowhere," Spillane said. "It's been a long building process. Fortunately, we've had [financial] help . . . If you're not being successful, and you're not winning, then you're not making any money, that's for sure."

In the lead-up to the Games, Canadian sport officials boasted that Team Canada would "own the podium" here; though it won the gold medal count with a record 14, Canada accrued 26 overall and finished behind Germany, which won 30 medals. U.S. Olympic officials steadfastly refused to set a public medal target and they did not advertise this U.S. team as possibly the best ever.

Even with the victory at hand, USOC officials seemed careful not to celebrate excessively and hoped their athletes did the same, perhaps conscious that the only thing that could diminish the value of this gold medal moment would be failing to handle it with grace and dignity.

"For us at the Olympic Games, it's not nation against nation," Blackmun said. "Yes, we very much want our athletes to do well, but we don't emphasize America versus the rest of the world.

"If America's athletes perform well, it gives us the ability to tell a much more compelling story to the American public."

And it's those stories that are worth gold, literally and figuratively. Countless athletes here said they had been influenced watching or learning about U.S. stars from a previous generation. Americans who climb medal podiums inevitably influence more youngsters to take up Olympic sports, another long-term benefit of medal success.

"It's just going to help us in so many practical ways," said U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association president and chief executive officer Bill Marolt.

This Olympics produced many landmark achievements. The U.S. Alpine team won a record eight medals. Nordic combined athletes hadn't won any medals in 86 years; they won four here.

Short track skater Apolo Anton Ohno won three medals, bringing his career total to eight, a record for a U.S. Winter Olympian. Evan Lysacek became the first U.S. male figure skater to win gold in 22 years. Bode Miller became the most decorated American in Alpine skiing with five medals overall, and three at these Games.

"It's kind of inspiring," said Mancuso, who won two silver medals. "We're all coming together on the world stage. It's really part of a bigger vision . . . We're all out there competing for a much bigger team."

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