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Archive for Thursday, January 31, 2002

Rising stars could make it a golden Olympics for U.S.

January 31, 2002

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— Get ready for a red, white and blue Olympics.

With Americans enjoying the home-field advantage and some rising stars eager for a world stage, this could be a golden Winter Games for U.S. athletes.

From the ice where Apolo Anton Ohno races and the women's hockey team should dominate to the slopes where Bode Miller will be a favorite, America's athletes hope to give flag-waving fans plenty to cheer about.

The goal is 20 medals, seven more than the United States has ever won at the Winter Olympics. With chants of "USA, USA" reverberating through the Wasatch Mountains, it could go even higher.

Things look so good that even bobsledders could win a medal for the first time in 46 years, thanks mostly to the addition of women in the sport.

The stage is set as never before. Now all they have to do is perform when it counts for 17 days in Salt Lake City, beginning Feb. 8.

"This is our showcase opportunity," U.S. Olympic Committee president Sandra Baldwin said. "We've invested a lot of time and money in having our winter sports do well, and we'll have a great legacy with the facilities afterward. Now we just have to watch it pay off."

Speedy success

Many Americans will watch an assortment of sports they would generally ignore to see if the nation's winter athletes can top the 13 medals won at both the 1994 Lillehammer Games and the 1998 Nagano Games.

Sheer numbers are in their favor. There are 10 more events for a total of 78 in 15 disciplines. In all, athletes will go home with 477 medals.

If the United States reaches its goal of 20 medals, the majority probably will come from the skiing and speedskating entries.

Half of those medals could come in speedskating alone, with the 19-year-old Ohno a favorite in any of the four roller derby-type short-track events he's in.

"Apolo can medal in every race," said Fred Benjamin, president of U.S. Speedskating.

Ten speedskating medals might be a bit optimistic, but it reflects an almost giddy attitude U.S. officials have about the prospects of a medal haul in Salt Lake City.

That comes from a renewed commitment by the USOC to winter sports during the last decade. U.S. athletes also have been able to ski the moguls outside Salt Lake City and practice on the speedskating oval and bobsled and luge runs on a regular basis.

"Everybody seems to be peaking at the right time," USOC president Lloyd Ward said. "We like what we see."

Worth the price?

While the United States has dominated at the Summer Olympics and ranks third overall behind Norway and the former Soviet Union in winter medals, it hasn't done as well recently at the Winter Games.

Take away Eric Heiden's five gold medals in 1980, and the United States is averaging just slightly more than nine medals a games for the last six Winter Olympics.

That figures to change when U.S. athletes get in front of crowds energized with patriotic fever and eager to see their countrymen succeed. A good showing would be especially important to a country still reeling from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Japan enjoyed its status as host country to win more medals in Nagano than ever before, and the U.S. team should get a similar boost.

That's fine with the International Olympic Committee, which needs the excitement of the home team doing well to help justify the games' nearly $2 billion price tag.

"The performance of the home team is of vital importance to the spirit of the games," IOC president Jacques Rogge said.

The women's hockey team unbeaten through 28 games of exhibition play seems almost certain to win a gold, and medals await in figure skating where Michelle Kwan is favored. Ohno and Miller should provide plenty of excitement, while the United States has three legitimate contenders in snowboarding, too.

And Nagano gold medalist Jonny Moseley returns to lead a strong freestyle skiing team that is as quotable as it is good.

"If I can come down, throw a 360 mute grab up top, ski the middle clean, and do the Dinner Roll at the bottom with a bute grab, that's the run," Moseley said. "It's over. K.O. punch. Right there."

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