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U.S. Medals Tarnished by Unruly Behavior

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 23, 1998; Page C1




NAGANO, Feb. 22 — As the Olympic flame was extinguished tonight at Minami Sports Park amid a stunning fireworks display, the United States concluded these Winter Games with 13 medals — matched only in the 1994 Games — and a record number of top 10 finishes. In the overall medal count, the United States finished sixth, with six golds, three silvers and four bronzes.

Those results are considered promising for a U.S. team intent on having its best Winter Olympics ever during the 2002 Games on home turf in Salt Lake City.

But U.S. athletes and officials also departed with a sour taste left by the actions of some U.S. men's hockey team members, who caused $3,000 in damage to the Olympic Village last week after being eliminated.

U.S. Olympic Committee Executive Director Dick Schultz said the responsible players — who have not yet been identified — likely will be banned from participating in future Olympics. Schultz also said certain Olympic mementos such as medals and leather jackets will be withheld from the guilty players. An investigation into the incident continued today.

"We're going to be limited in what we can do, other than making sure, perhaps, that those players don't participate again," Schultz said. "Anybody doing anything negative has an impact on the whole. The disappointing thing is it's kind of a blemish on the other 190, 191 [U.S.] athletes here who did exactly what they were supposed to do and were good role models."

Besides the record-tying number of overall medals, the United States also matched its high of six golds won in the 1994, 1980 and 1932 Winter Olympics.

The gold medal performances came from two male athletes, three female athletes and one women's team. Picabo Street won a gold in the Super-G skiing race, Nikki Stone did the same in freestyle skiing aerials, and figure skater Tara Lipinski and the women's hockey team added the others by female competitors.

Cammi Granato, who became the first female hockey player ever to have a gold medal draped around her neck, also carried the flag for the U.S. team at the Closing Ceremonies tonight.

"I'll never forget this whole experience," Granato said. "It's definitely etched in my brain right now, and in my videos, and in my pictures, and my journal. I'll never forget when they put that medal around my neck."

The U.S. men's hockey team, in contrast, left the Games without medals of any color. As the players returned this weekend to their NHL teams, they carried only the dubious distinction of having wrecked several chairs and damaged a couple of rooms before their departure. Only a few players were believed to be responsible, Schultz said.

U.S. Chief of Mission Paul George said the damage was discovered early in the morning last Thursday after the players already had left the village for their flight back to the United States.

"Believe me, if we had had a chance, we would have had them in for a chat," George said.

In a gathering today intended to celebrate the Americans' accomplishments here, U.S. team members expressed a range of reactions to the vandalism — none of which was sympathy or understanding.

Many seemed genuinely baffled about the hockey players' behavior in the middle of the night after being upset by the Czech Republic, which won the gold medal today.

"Not everyone can win a medal," said U.S. speedskater Jennifer Rodriguez, who came in fourth in the 3,000 meters. "These are professionals; it's not like they have never not won a game. Everyone has bad days and you have to suck it up and take it like a pro. It's unacceptable what they did. It makes the entire country look bad."

Said speedskater Chris Witty, who won a silver and bronze medal in the 1,000 and 1,500: "They came in as professionals — they should be professional. It's almost like they had the attitude that they didn't want to be here. I don't know if they really reflect on the whole U.S. team. Everybody knows professional athletes are not amateurs. In a way, they are not like the rest of us. ... I think they came here as kind of spoiled professional athletes."

Said speedskater Casey FitzRandolph: "You never like to see something like that in the Olympic Games. It was disappointing. It was embarrassing. ... A lot of countries kind of look at Americans as brash and not polite, and when something like this happens, it just strengthens their argument."

Gordy Sheer, who won a silver in luge doubles along with sledmate Chris Thorpe, said he didn't expect the guilty parties to be effectively punished, even if they were prevented from competing again in the Olympics.

"It's hard to punish someone making $10 million a year," Thorpe said. "Do you think they really care?"

Schultz said the U.S. Olympic Committee and the sport's national governing body, USA Hockey, shared joint responsibility for the players' conduct. Schultz said it would be up to the NHL whether it sent professional players to the Olympics again.

"We're very disappointed and upset," Schultz said. "We don't know who was involved. ... We expect all athletes to be role models and to conduct themselves properly at the Games."

Still, most athletes said they are leaving with fond memories of competition, interaction with other athletes and exposure to Japanese culture. Not only did Rodriguez surprise herself with her fourth-place finish in the 3,000, she also said she also enjoyed her stay in the Olympic Village.

"I have never met people this nice before," said Rodriguez. "I was shocked, totally. I came from Miami, where people are flipping you off and honking at you all the time. The people here are so nice."

And the people of Nagano bid their visitors farewell with Closing Ceremonies highlighted by an 11-minute display of fireworks in the shape of cherry blossoms, sunflowers, chrysanthemums and, finally, the snowflower that was the Nagano Games emblem. Before International Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch declared the Games closed, the audience got a taste of the 2002 Olympics in the form of a frontier stagecoach and a posse of cowboys on horseback that raced around the stadium.

Citing the record number of top 10 finishes for the U.S. team this year — 60 compared with the previous high of 41 — Schultz said the USOC would expect more medals in Salt Lake City as younger athletes with high placements here return for those Games.

"We want that to be the pinnacle of success for our Olympic athletes," Schultz said. "We will be doing some special things to make sure the Salt Lake Games are our best ever."

Said George: "We can do 20 medals in Salt Lake City."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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