The word out of Russia at the end of the 2014 Winter Olympics was that U.S. Olympic Committee officials were satisfied with the American athletes' final tally — 28 medals, down from 37 four years ago in Vancouver, but with nine gold medals to match the 2010 total.
Most knowledgeable observers knew it would be difficult to duplicate the 37 medals. The prediction here for Team USA was 32 medals, and taking into account all but one sport, that guess was on target.
The difference came in long-track speedskating, where the U.S. contingent led by superstar Shani Davis came up totally empty — no gold medals, no silver, no bronze, nothing close. Davis alone had won gold and silver both in Vancouver and in 2006 at Turin; this time he placed eighth in the 1,000 meters and 11th in the 1,500. For the women, projected medal contenders Heather Richardson and Brittany Bowe also bombed. America's skaters even changed racing suits midway through the Olympics, discarding state-of-the-art suits for ones from other world competitions, to no avail.
The various sports under the USOC umbrella do not operate in a vacuum. Each sport's national governing body has to be constantly accountable, submitting plans and updates on athletes and training programs throughout the four-year cycle leading to the Games, all of which the USOC continually evaluates as a requirement for continued funding.
Going in, there was no alarm, no cause for concern. According to reports, speedskating had projected six medals in Sochi. (The estimate here was for a more modest four.) So now the USOC as well as U.S. Speedskating will conduct immediate post mortems to evaluate the poor performance.
As for other sports, there was the usual mixture of good and bad surprises. Who could have envisioned snowboarding star Shaun White also failing to medal? And after the U.S. men's hockey team looked so strong through pool play and the quarterfinals, nobody foresaw the Americans finishing with two shutout losses and no medal.
One high point was skier Mikaela Shiffrin, the 18-year-old from Vail who won the women's slalom gold medal and stamped herself as a force for years to come. Freestyle skiing, with some first-time events, became a U.S. success story with seven medals, three gold, while the alpine skiers and snowboarders won five medals each.
Bobsled also turned out well for the Americans with four medals, three bronze and one silver, a validation of that sport having good training facilities and sponsors such as BMW providing technical expertise for sled design.
Another U.S. sport that came away disappointed was figure skating. Though Meryl Davis and Charlie White won the first-ever American gold medal in ice dancing, a bronze in the new team event was the only other U.S. medal in the sport.
And if you're wondering when was the last time for no American medals in either individual figure skating event, men or women, that would be 1936 — or 78 years ago. The U.S. women have been blanked now for two consecutive Winter Games, after winning 14 medals in a stretch of 11 Olympiads starting with Peggy Fleming, then of Colorado Springs, winning gold in 1968.
As for what to expect in 2018 when the Winter Games go to Pyeongchang, South Korea, that venue actually might be more favorable if only because it'll be a more accessible neutral site — just fly to Seoul and drive 80 miles into the mountains. We'll have to see whether men's hockey undergoes radical format changes, with some indications that the National Hockey League might not agree to another two-week shutdown and its players having to adjust to the larger Olympic ice sheet, 100 feet wide as opposed to the NHL's 85 feet.
Regardless, the USOC will look first at speedskating — also to analyze how nobody saw that train wreck coming, with no U.S. long-track medals for the first time since 1984.
When the answers come, they won't be secrets. And they might help lead to better outcomes for other sports in 2018.
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