There are still about 24 hours of coverage from the Winter Olympics on my DVR and, though I know the results of most of the events, I am slowly going to watch it all. As I watch the US medal count plod upward I can feel a sense of entitlement welling up inside me. It’s the feeling that makes America so loathed around the world. It’s the feeling that says, “Of course we’re leading the medal count. We always lead the medal count. This is America. We’re supposed to be winning.” I don’t have any sense of “awe” or “amazement.” Which is sad, because I should. We ALL should. My goodness people, this is the WINTER OLYMPICS. Historically we—well, why sugar coat it—we suck at the Winter Olympics.
Through my formative years this is how the US has stacked up against the world:
|Year||Winner’s Total||US total medal count||Rank|
But this century has seen marked improvement, (2002: 36, 34, 2nd, and 2006: 29, 25 and 2nd again) though it took our victory by 7 medals in Vancouver for me to notice.
We won a gold medal in four-man bobsled, for goodness sake. We haven’t won gold in that event since 1948, routinely getting crushed—finishing three-quarters of a second behind the winners. That’s a USC/Shippensburg State kind of blow out in bobsled folks.
And now we’ve won gold and all it took was finding the portly kid with the bad eyes and an interest in gravity and reduced coefficients of friction. There was our problem, we kept sending world class athletes like Herschel Walker to the Winter Olympics to compete in bobsled when, in fact, we should have been tapping into America’s well-publicized pool of overweight children. If you’ve got a pre-teen with slow feet and a mid section fashioned by the rigors of Fritos and joy sticks, just move to the mountains and make him a boblsledder. And if little Billy chokes on a Snickers pulling 5 G’s through Turn-6, there are three guys behind him in perfect position to perform the Heimlich maneuver.
I have to believe the inclusion of sports once the sole property of the US/made-for-TV Winter X-Games like Snowboard Half Pipe, Skicross and Free style skiing has helped us pad our medal totals. These sports seem tailor made for another teen demographic on the outside of the athletic mainstream—the spoiled rich kid.
There are still sports where we haven’t broken through for Olympic Gold, despite a growing demographic primed for success. Curling for example, which is really just shuffleboard on ice. When Canada’s elderly retire to the south, they are still in Toronto. When our elderly head south…..suffice it say the best ice around is in Nana’s Vodka Gimlet. But as America’s baby-boomers reach retirement age there should be a ready supply of participants, if only the US Olympic Committee can get together with the AARP and the Chambers of Commerce in Salt Lake City, Minneapolis and Lake Placid to encourage a more northern migration.
Naturally, there’s more to America’s success than snarky generalizations and stereotypes. There is Global Cooling which has increased snow-fall and made traditionally northern sports accessible in more southern states. (No, wait. Someone get me Al Gore on the phone. I don’t think I have that right.)
Truly, though, this is a story more about geo-politics than the inevitable ascendance of America. A real journalist looking into this phenomenon would probably site the breakup of the former Soviet Union, a global economic downturn limiting national Olympic expenditures, and the positive effects of globalization providing increased educational opportunities which take Nordic and Slavic kids off the slopes in search of a better life and put them in the classroom where they belong.
The fact that American Bill Demong became the first American to win a gold medal in any Nordic event (Nordic Combined) might have as much to do with the decline of other national programs as it does with the rise of America’s Nordic training.
Regardless of reason for America’s success, as you reflect on these Winter Olympics we should all be very proud of our athletes. They are finding success where few Americans have before. Our success IS a shock. It IS surprising; and it IS quite noteworthy. Not because America is great, but because these particular athletes are great.