KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia –The first 48 hours of the Sochi Olympics brought some of the most traditional of scenes.
Atop a mountain here Sunday, a young Austrian named Matthias Mayer blistered down a ski slope to win gold in the men’s downhill, one of the Winter Games’ longstanding glamour events. On Saturday in Sochi, amid an orange-wearing crowd that included his country’s king and queen, Sven Kramer led a Dutch sweep in the 5,000 meters to add to the speedskating medal haul of the Netherlands, which has dominated the sport since the first Winter Games in 1924.
Meantime, over a peak and down a nearby slope from the downhill, the United States’ second gold medalist of 2014 was asked to explain her sport, the slopestyle event in snowboarding, which is brand new to the Olympics this year. “It’s like playing,” Jamie Anderson said. “We’re pretty much snowboarding on a playground up there.”
Each Winter Games, and each introduction of a new sport, seems to bring another chance for Americans to pad their medal totals, and the divide between tradition and innovation, between customs and relevance, grows wider. It can scarcely go unnoticed through the first weekend in Sochi, where the International Olympic Committee has added 12 new events. And no country has taken more advantage of the sports expansion than the United States — highlighted by the inaugural slopestyle gold medals won by Anderson and Sage Kotsenburg, the only golds for Americans thus far.
Three of the four American medals the first weekend of the Games came in events that didn’t exist four years ago.
“I think the president of the IOC should be Johnny Knoxville, because basically, this stuff is just ‘Jackass’ stuff that they invented and called Olympic sports,” Bob Costas said on NBC said before the Games began, referring to the comedic daredevil known for, among other things, crashing into all manner of impediments.
The IOC, along with its broadcast and advertising partners, began seeking younger audiences with the introduction of short-track speedskating in 1992, and with snowboarding six years later. Eight of the 12 new events at these Games have their origins in extreme sports.
At the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan, the United States won six golds and 13 medals overall, scant production from one of the world’s largest sports-playing nations. Four years later, on home soil in Salt Lake City, those numbers rose to 10 golds and 34 total medals, a huge jump. That’s because no other country did a better job of taking advantage of the newer sports. Fourteen of those medals came in sports that weren’t on the Olympic program before 1992.
In the various disciplines of snowboarding, for instance, the Americans have led the medal count in every Olympics since the debut in 1998, taking 21 medals — nearly one-third of the 66 awarded — and nine of the 22 available golds. In 2010, when the United States won 37 medals in Vancouver — more than any other country — 15 came from snowboarding, freestyle skiing and short-track speedskating.
This is, in part, because the U.S. Olympic Committee has spent time analyzing where it can best put its resources, matching money with opportunity.
“We’ve been able to really customize and drill down where we can have the greatest impact,” said Alan Ashley, the USOC’s chief of sport performance, before the competition in Sochi began. “I’d like to try to get as many athletes opportunities as possible to become obviously Olympians, then become successful Olympians as well.”
Only six sports have been contested in each of the 22 Winter Olympics, dating from 1924 — cross-country skiing, figure skating, ice hockey, ski jumping, Nordic combined (which combines cross-country skiing and ski jumping), and speed skating. Alpine skiing didn’t debut until 1936.
Evolving sports of the Winter Olympics
The Sochi Games are only three days old, and the United States will be favored to win medals in Alpine skiing, bobsled, even cross-country. But the lasting images of Americans came from the obstacle-laden course at snowboarding’s slopestyle venue, where even the competitors seemed to be surprised at the newfound attention, both to themselves and to their sport.
“I’ve never really thought about the Olympics until it got put in,” said Bill Enos, the American slopestyle coach.
Mike Jankowski, the head coach of the U.S. freestyle skiing and snowboarding teams, was asked why in the world his country excels at such sports.
“I think a lot of it has to do with the mind-set, a lot of it has to do with how we grew up, where we grew up and just having sport in our life — whether it be soccer, baseball, football, something traditional, or your skatepark around the corner or the diving board with your friends, seeing how many flips you can do off it,” Jankowski said. “It’s pushing the limits a little bit and keeping it fun.”
Mike Wise contributed to this report.