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How the US came to rule the Winter Olympics

The American team is looking to lead the total medal race for the 2nd straight Winter Olympics.

Brennan Linsley/AP

The American team is looking to lead the total medal race for the 2nd straight Winter Olympics.

In 1988, when Uncle Sam’s 118-member snow-and-ice legion numbered many more marchers than medalists, its total haul of shiny keepsakes was six. At the XXII Winter Games that begin Friday in Sochi, the freestyle skiers expect to win at least that many, as the star-spangled team figures to top the medal table once again.

“I think Team USA is going into this in a really good place and can do well, like we did in Vancouver,” reckoned Alan Ashley, the US Olympic Committee’s chief of sports performance.

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The Americans’ primacy represents an extraordinary turnaround from their woeful showing in Calgary 26 years ago when they finished ninth in the overall count despite sending the planet’s largest contingent backed by more than $7 million of USOC spending.

Since then, geographical upheaval has rearranged the top of the table in the wake of the breakup of the Soviet Union and the reunification of Germany. With the USSR’s 15 former republics competing as separate countries, Russia has slipped down the ladder and Germany now wins only a few more medals than its East Side did by itself.

Yet the American ascent has much more to do with the USOC’s sustained and targeted financial support during the past six quadrennia and its ability to cash in on the X Games sports and others that have been added since 1992.

Four years ago in Vancouver, where the US won the overall winter medal race for the first time since 1932, its athletes earned 16 in those disciplines while adding eight in Alpine skiing and four apiece in long-track speedskating and Nordic combined. This time, the overall number could rise to 41 with the addition of new slopestyle events in freestyle skiing and snowboarding plus team events in figure skating and luge.

No other nation, particularly traditional rival Russia, can match the Yanks’ breadth and depth along the spectrum of old and new sports. Of the 15 disciplines in Sochi, the US figures to win medals in all but two and golds in 11.

What’s notable is that 18 of those medals likely will come on the women’s side across nine sports. The ice hockey team is expected to win gold for the first time since 1998, while Mikaela Shiffrin should become the first US woman to claim the slalom since 1972. Kikkan Randall should win a breakthrough medal in cross-country, and Sarah Hendrickson will go for the inaugural title in women’s ski jumping.

And the freestyle skiers and snowboarders figure to be good for half a dozen medals of varied hues.

That across-the-board success would have seemed remote in 1988, when all of the US medals came from figure skating and speedskating and Brian Boitano and Bonnie Blair produced the only two golds. What was most disturbing was the uncompetitive level of most of the athletes. The hockey team finished seventh. The two-man bobsled team slogged in behind Chinese Taipei. No men’s Alpine skier cracked the top 10, no cross-country skier or biathlete the top 20.

“In Holland, they nail you to the clock tower if you don’t meet expectations,” said Peter Schotting, who coached Eric Flaim to the only US men’s speedskating medal in Calgary. “It should be the same here. This is a performance business.”

That US team, thrown together in the weeks before the Games and marked by ugly chatter about lawsuits, squabbling, and excuses from also-rans, was dysfunctional.

“We can do better,” declared Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, who chaired a special overview commission that examined the entire US Olympic program. “We should do better. The American public deserves the best we can give them.”

Even so, it took more than a decade to change what long had been a culture of entitlement to a culture of accountability. When Norman Blake, a corporate turnaround artist, was hired as chief executive officer in 2000 to reshape the USOC, his “money for medals” approach — tying funding to performance — provoked resistance from traditionalists who believed the important thing was not to win but to take part.

Blake quit after nine months, citing “the absence of sufficient organizational resolve and commitment.” Yet the Olympic committee soon bought into his idea that the individual sports federations couldn’t simply cash checks without producing results.

Instead of turning in the customary post-Games reports explaining how the cash was spent, the federations had to sit down with USOC officials and explain in advance how they’d spend it. That’s still the procedure.

“We’ve been able to customize and drill down and see where we can have the greatest impact,” said Ashley. “Whether it’s with funding or sports science and medicine or use of our training facilities — anywhere we can deploy resources against a specific need which is going to help athletes to prepare better.”

That approach paid off hugely four years ago for the Nordic combined team, which hadn’t won a medal since the sport was added to the program in 1924. The US earned four in Vancouver, including a gold from Billy Demong. Demong and three other members of that team will be in Sochi, including sixth-timer Todd Lodwick.

“What that tells me is they’ve made a career out of this,” said Ashley, “and been able to sustain their competitive focus even longer.”

Alpine skier Bode Miller, who won a medal of each color in 2010, still will be a contender at his fifth Games. So will fourth-timers Shani Davis, who is favored to win two gold medals in speedskating, and hockey player Julie Chu, who should earn her fourth medal. Of the 230 team members, 106 are Olympic veterans, among them 49 medalists, 13 of them gold.

For decades, many US Olympians were one-and-done because they didn’t have the cash to continue. Sustenance from the USOC and their federations, covering everything from stipends to housing to medical care to bonuses for Olympic medals ($25,000, $15,000, $10,000) keeps them going.

The breakthrough came a dozen years ago at the Salt Lake Games, where the home team won 34 medals, nearly triple its biggest previous winter haul.

“We worked on this plan for seven years,” USOC president Sandy Baldwin said then. “It is not serendipity.”

The committee poured $40 million into winter sports during that lead-up quadrennium and the organizing committee built state-of-the-art facilities. The USOC viewed Salt Lake City as an investment, a building block for subsequent Games. In the past decade, the committee nearly doubled its direct funding to athletes and increased the federations’ allotment by 10 percent during the quadrennium that ended in 2012.

Not only has the USOC kept the pipeline flowing during the past dozen years, it has made a point of developing sports like biathlon and Nordic skiing that once were written off but now are viewed as potential medal sources.

What has jacked up Uncle Sam’s tally, though, is his ability to mine a motherlode from the disciplines that have been added during the past quarter-century. Taken together, freestyle skiing, snowboarding, short-track speedskating, skeleton, curling, and women’s hockey and bobsled have contributed 64 medals. This time they’re likely to combine for 21, more than half of the American total.

Back in 1988, the Yanks would have been happy to sell Alaska back to the Russians to get that payoff.

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