US foresees a high medal count

It has increased spending on winter sports since the last Olympics to $36 million to keep up its victories.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

At long last, America seems to have gotten the hang of the Winter Olympics.

By many measures, America had its most successful winter Games in history four years ago, winning 34 medals and topping its previous best by 21.

Yet far more than Salt Lake City, where America had the benefit of home field and home fans, the truest test of America's progress in the "Other Olympics" will begin after opening ceremonies Friday.

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The United States Olympic Committee (USOC) is cautiously optimistic, saying World Cup results suggest that this team could be better than the one that competed in Salt Lake City. But its greatest goal, perhaps, is to beat history: In the past, countries that held the Olympics have seen their medal tally drop 41 percent in the next Games.

The overwhelming success of 2002 "was home-field advantage," says David Wallechinsky, author of "The Complete Book of the Winter Olympics." "Twenty-five medals would be a good result," he says.

Though the USOC shies away from making any medal predictions, it has put its money into beating the post-host drop. Normally, countries hosting the Games will ramp up spending to ensure that their athletes perform well, then drop spending again after closing ceremonies.

Yet the USOC has slightly increased its spending on winter sports since Salt Lake City to $36 million. "We would hope to be able to break that trend," says Jim Scherr, chief executive officer of the USOC. "If we can do better than [the 41 percent drop], we'll feel that we've been successful."

A 41 percent drop would yield 20 medals. But Mr. Scherr argues that Salt Lake City was more than just home field, it was a turning point in American winter sports. "Up until that time, we were also-rans in terms of the Winter Olympic Games," he says. "The across-the-board depth was not there."

Now, it clearly is. But statistics suggest that this might have as much to do with changes in the Games as changes in America. Some 41 percent of America's 2002 medals came from sports that have been introduced since 1992. Moreover, another third came from long-track speed skating and figure skating - the only traditional winter sports in which America has consistently fared well.

In short, America is making few inroads into the sports that form the historic center of the Games, particularly the Nordic events such as cross-country, ski jumping, Nordic combined (a combination of the two), and biathlon.

In these events, the US has won two medals - a 1976 cross-country silver and a 1924 ski-jumping bronze - in the history of the Games. In all, they account for one-third of the winter medals, making it extremely difficult for the US to repeat its only No. 1 medal finish in a winter Games: 1932 in Lake Placid, N.Y.

In fact, that was the only year in which a nation other than Germany, Norway, or Russia has topped the medal table. Of late, Germany has been on top, winning three of the four winter Olympics since the fall of the Berlin Wall - and it is a favorite to repeat this year. Significantly, though, of the 74 medals won in 2002 by Germany, Norway, and Russia - finishing first, second, and fifth, respectively - only two were in sports added since 1992.

This year will show whether the US can parlay success in the new sports into a permanent place among the winter sports trinity. Yet making predictions is particularly slippery this year, given that some of America's most accomplished athletes are alpine skiers and short-track speed skaters. They are the most volatile events of the Games, where conditions and crashes can take results largely out of athletes' hands.

"In these two sports in particular, anything can happen on any given day," says Mr. Wallechinsky.

Still, the figure the US sets this year could stand as an index for years to come. After more than doubling from 39 to 84 events during the past two decades, the winter Games appear to be nearing a steady state, making it easier to compare medal tables from different years.

The expanding schedule has made that difficult recently. Though the US shattered its previous medal record in Salt Lake City, for instance, it won only 15 percent of the medals. It was America's best share since 1952, but only the fourth-best percentage ever. By contrast, the US won only 12 medals in 1932, but they were 29 percent of the total - the best US result in history.

This year, there are only three new events for both men and women: the biathlon mass start, the long-track speed skating team pursuit event, and snowboardcross - a sort of snowboard steeplechase.

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