PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – It’s not as if the Americans were planning on topping the medal table at these Olympics in the Land of the (Freezing) Morning Calm. They’ve never done that at an overseas Winter Games. But they weren’t figuring on looking up from the mezzanine at the midway point with a single-digit number, either.
With a week to go before the closing ceremonies, the US is sitting in sixth place in the standings with only eight medals, below Norway (19), Germany (15), Netherlands (13), Canada (13) and Austria (nine) and tied with Russia, which sent a squad predominantly composed of second-stringers in the wake of the Sochi doping scandal.
There’s still plenty of precious metal available for the mining, of course. The freestyle skiers could collect half a dozen medals starting with Sunday’s men’s slopestyle and aerials, and the Alpine folks another three. The snowboarders, who’ve already grabbed five (four of them gold), have a good shot in the new big air event. The women’s bobsledders should be good for a couple of medals, the women’s hockey team for at least a silver and the ice dancers a bronze.
That would put the Yanks at 22, which would be more than respectable by last century’s standards. But in this millennium they’ve compiled no fewer than 25 and have been no worse than second overall. They were top of the heap in Vancouver with 37 medals and four years ago, up against their drugged hosts, they collected 28. Since samples are available for retesting for a decade the US might yet achieve top billing for 2014.
So why the shortfall here? For one, a fistful of medals that boosted the star-spangled haul in Sochi vanished this time. The skeleton sledders, who won two there, likely will be blanked here as Matt Antoine, dropped from bronze to 11th and Katie Uhlaender was 12th midway through. The women’s freestyle skiers missed out on moguls and slopestyle. The men’s bobsledders, who got a pair from the late Steve Holcomb, aren’t among the top contenders now.
Another major reason for the relative paucity of medals has been the underperformance of the cross-country skiers and biathletes, who were pegged for Olympic breakthroughs based on their performances at last year’s world championships.
After Lowell Bailey won the men’s individual event, he was a good bet for the biathlon podium here. But after missing his first two shooting targets he ended up 51st.
“I think shock is the only way to describe it,” he said.
Susan Dunklee, who won silver in the women’s mass start last year, did not start in that event Saturday night. She hasn’t won a World Cup medal this season and was 19th in the individual race here.
Once Jessie Diggins won a pair of global sprint medals, she seemed on track for the first US cross-country podium since Bill Koch in 1976. While she has three top-six finishes and a strong chance in the Wednesday’s team sprint, the podium so far has been elusive.
The Americans already have left a hefty number of medals on the table. Mikaela Shiffrin, who has owned the women’s slalom for the better part of five years, couldn’t reset after winning the giant slalom and missed the podium in her specialty the next day.
“When it counts, I didn’t do it,” she said.
After he won the Grand Prix figure skating final, Nathan Chen figured to make the men’s podium here and possibly contend for gold. While his 17th-to-first leap in Saturday’s free skate was astounding, it only was good for fifth overall.
Heather Bergsma came in as world champion in the 1,000- and 1,500-meter speedskating events. She rolled a pair of eights. The men’s short-track relay set a world record this season. It didn’t make the final. Ashley Caldwell is world aerials champ in freestyle. She didn’t make it out of qualifying. Erin Hamlin, the US flagbearer, won the world silver in women’s luge last year. She finished sixth (although Chris Mazdzer came up with an out-of-nowhere men’s silver).
In several sports the Americans have been reminded that their European rivals take the pre-Olympic world championships less seriously than they do the actual Games. The Dutch long-trackers didn’t mind when the US won a trio of titles at the single-distance meet here a year ago. But they’ve been relentless in their golden pursuit here, winning six of seven races so far while the Yanks likely will be blanked again unless world champ Joey Mantia medals in Saturday’s mass start.
“These guys aren’t amateurs,” coach Gene Hackman tells hotshot Robert Redford in the movie “Downhill Racer.”
“They’re national heroes. You’re trying to beat them out of their way of life.”
The Dutch don’t have anything else going but speedskating, where they won 23 medals last time. The Norwegians live off the snow. The Germans put their chips on luge, biathlon, and the Nordic events.
What has made the Americans a force ever since they hosted in Salt Lake City four quadrennia ago is their strength across the board, which is what the Canadians have now. In Sochi the US stash came from nine of the 15 sports. So far this time the X Gamers have accounted for five of the eight medals.
Traditionally, the US has been a second-week squad. If the Yanks can cash what’s still out there, and the final push likely won’t start until Wednesday, they might finish among the top three.
That still will be their lowest finish since Nagano in 1998, the last time the Games were held in Asia.
But it’d be twice as good as sixth.John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.