U.S. Ends Olympics With Record
By Christine Brennan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 28, 1994; Page A1
LILLEHAMMER, Norway, Feb. 27 The United States won 13 medals its Winter Olympic record at the Lillehammer Games, which ended its 16-day run today with the Closing Ceremonies on a cold, dark evening at the ski jumping stadium. In a simple, traditional show, Norwegian children danced and sang, the Olympic flame was extinguished and clusters of athletes joyfully celebrated the end of an Olympiad that came off without a hitch.
It was the most successful Winter Games ever for the 154-member U.S. delegation, which won six gold medals, tying the nation's previous best gold-medal efforts of 1932 and 1980, both held in Lake Placid, N.Y.
While the numbers are impressive, there are subtle signs of trouble. The medals came from only four of the nine sports at the Olympics: Alpine skiing, speed skating, freestyle skiing and figure skating, which is a bit deceiving, because Nancy Kerrigan was the only American to finish in the top four of the four figure skating events. All told, it was the worst U.S. performance in figure skating, the most popular of all winter spectator sports in the United States, since 1972.
For the United States, the medal winners came with remarkable stories: Speed skater Dan Jansen, who carried the U.S. flag tonight, overcame a six-year battle with his memories and failures to finally win a gold medal; speed skater Bonnie Blair won two more gold medals to become the most decorated female U.S. Olympian in history; Kerrigan overcame the Jan. 6 attack on her knee to skate impeccably, but had to settle for the silver medal by the closest possible judging margin, one-tenth of a point; skier Tommy Moe flew down the mountain to win the downhill and shock the favored Europeans on the first full day of competition.
Other U.S. performances were hardly inspiring. The hockey team had its worst Olympics ever, going 1-4-3, finishing eighth and becoming the first U.S. team to win fewer than two games in the Olympic tournament. Since the 1980 "Miracle on Ice" gold medal, the United States has gone four Olympics without a medal, which also is a record.
The bobsled team, finally well-subsidized after years of little financial support, had its troubles, managing nothing better than a 13th-place finish. Some U.S. lugers crashed, while tradition held in sports such as cross-country skiing, biathlon and the distance speed skating events, where Americans rarely do well.
USOC Executive Director Harvey Schiller said that he was pleased with the results, even if they did not often yield medals.
"Each of the athletes that are here, plus all of the others on the team, have been part of a very, very strong developmental process, ranging from athletes' subsistence funds to use of training centers and a range of other things," Schiller said. "I think they've answered the questions of whether the USOC should field a complete team in each of the Games, because some have improved their placing in their events from two years ago to now, and are close to winning a medal."
For instance, in Alpine skiing alone, Moe finished fifth in the men's combined, Eva Twardokens came in sixth in the women's giant slalom, Jeremy Nobis was ninth in the men's giant slalom and Picabo Street came in 10th in the women's combined after a silver medal finish in the downhill.
The Americans are coming closer in luge, as Wendel Suckow's fifth-place finish was the best ever in men's singles. American teams were fourth and fifth in doubles competition as well.
Even in the women's biathlon, there was hope. Joan Smith, who was 14th in the 15-kilometer biathlon, and Joan Guetschow, who was 17th, allowed the United States to place two athletes in the top 20 of the same biathlon event for the first time ever.
The USOC has certainly given athletes incentives to do better. This was the first Olympics with a bonus pool in place for top performances. Gold medalists won $15,000; silver medalists earned $10,000; bronze medalists received $7,500; and a fourth-place finish earned $5,000.
Athletes such as Kerrigan, Blair, Jansen and some of the skiers will be expected to do very well on their own. Kerrigan's corporate deals should be worth about $5 million, exceeding those of any Olympic athlete in history coming immediately out of the Games.
With professionalism running rampant in the Games, these Olympics, the first on the new two-year cycle, staggered with the Summer Games, also are likely to become a watershed for athletes' rights and institutional control of athletes by sports organizations. Figure skater Tonya Harding, who has been linked to the Kerrigan attack, successfully fought to compete in the Games through legal threats and maneuvers, forcing the USOC to cancel a disciplinary hearing.
The USOC plans to "reexamine the provisions" of the Amateur Sports Act of 1978, which established the USOC in its present form, Schiller said, adding that the Harding case is not the only reason for USOC action.
As for Harding herself, Schiller said the examination of her future status in the U.S. Figure Skating Association, under the umbrella of the USOC, will continue.
"I don't think this is a story that has ended," Schiller said.
What is ending, however, are some memorable Winter Olympic careers. Blair and Jansen, two of the most famous speed skaters in U.S. history, are expected to retire. So too will many stars from these Games, who were able to compete in three Games in six years and two Olympics in the last two years. The next Winter Games are four years away, in Nagano, Japan, in 1998. By then, a new generation of U.S. athletes will be on hand in almost every sport.
While the United States celebrated its surprising showing in Alpine skiing and its steady performances on skates, other nations were even more productive.
Host Norway, which rededicated itself to winning Winter medals after receiving the bid to host these Olympics six years ago, was superb, winning 26 medals, the most of any nation. So were Germany, with 24 medals, and Italy, with 20.
On its own for the first time, Russia won a total of 23 medals, including three of the four coveted figure skating golds.
"We teach not only figure skating," said Irina Rodnina, a three-time gold medalist, "we teach you how to compete."
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