Americans don’t have to win a medal in every event for the Olympics to be enjoyable, but it helps NBC’s prime-time program if they win something. Hard-core fans might sit through an evening of yet another Dutch speedskating triumph, but others will opt to lighten the load in the DVR cache or binge-watch a hot new show.
Wednesday, then, was starting to look like cruel day for the network, as one after another, the athletes it — and almost everyone else — had predicted to be stars fell short of those expectations. Even Bob Costas has fallen short of expectations.
Oh, to have the luck of NBC. The United States had to wait till the last medal event of the day, but finally, Kaitlyn Farrington broke through with a surprising gold in the snowboard halfpipe. Her more touted teammate, Kelly Clark, took the bronze in the same event in which the U.S. men failed to medal Tuesday. Torah Bright of Australia took the silver.
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The 30-year-old Clark, a four-time Olympian, already had two Olympic medals, a gold (2002) and bronze (2010). Farrington, 24, made her Olympic debut in Sochi. Clark had the top score in qualifying and sailed into the finals, along with teammate Hannah Teter. Farrington had to make it by qualifying in the semifinals, and she did, with the highest score among 12 riders.
Teter won the gold in 2006, but fell during her final run. She was one of nine runners among the final field of 12 who had previous Winter Olympic experience, which makes Farrington’s victory all the more impressive. She grew up on a cattle ranch in Idaho — but wait, let’s leave NBC some room to tell her story. They’ll have a lot of air time to fill.
Shani Davis, not Farrington, should have dominated Wednesday’s coverage. The American was trying to make history as the first male speedskater to win the same event at three consecutive Olympics. Davis, 31, has held the world record in the 1,000 meters since 2009. He became the first black athlete to win an individual gold at a Winter Olympics with his gold medal in the 2006 Turin Games. Had he won any medal, he would have tied Eric Heiden and Chad Hedwick for the most Olympic speedskating medals by an American man.
Instead, Davis finished a surprising eighth. The Dutch, who already had claimed just about every other medal in the building, took two more. Stefan Groothuis won the gold and Michael Mulder — gold medalist in the 500 — took the bronze. In between was Canadian Denny Morrison with the silver.
Figure skating offered similar disappointment, from a medal standpoint, although the U.S. pairs teams weren’t expected to get within sight of the podium. Fortunately for NBC, the allegiances of skating fans cross international borders. So they’ll get plenty of viewers who’ll turn in to see Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov of Russia win the gold. Their countrymen, Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov, took silver and Germans Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy settled for bronze. Marissa Caselli and Simon Schnapir were the top American pair, in ninth.
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We’ll finally get to see the history that was made 12 hours earlier, when Switzerland’s Dominique Gisin and Slovenia’s Tina Maze both covered the 1.69-mile downhill course at the Rosa Khutor Alpine Center here in 1 minute, 41.57 seconds, the first time two Alpine skiers have shared a gold medal in Olympic history. Lara Gut of Switzerland was a tenth of a second behind and won the bronze. American Julia Mancuso, a pre-race favorite following a dominating performance in the downhill portion of the super combined on Monday, finished eighth.
NBC did not have the Canada-U.S. game on its prime-time schedule, but I’d expect some highlights from the Canadians’ 3-2 victory. Both teams advance directly to the semifinals, but the win gave the Canada the top seed.
There surely will be a preview of some kind for the opening men’s hockey games for Team USA and Team Russia, which is facing overwhelming pressure in this tournament. Both teams play Thursday morning at 7:30 a.m. — the Americans against Slovakia (NBCSN) and Russia against Slovenia (MSNBC) — so if the area ends up snowed in, NBC will happily provide viewing alternatives. Unless the electricity goes out. Then, even NBC can’t help you.