For Americans, lots of medals but a 'faceless' Olympics

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

As the signature American event of the Winter Olympic Games, it is only fitting that Thursday night's ladies' figure skating mixed great accomplishment with a healthy measure of disappointment.

At the end of the day, Sasha Cohen smiled. After a performance in which she fell twice, the silver medal was certainly "generous," she had to acknowledge. Yet the fact that she took second with such a performance only underscored the lack of drama on a night built to produce it.

For America, the Olympic Games are in many respects a two-week coronation in search of a king or queen. In some Olympics, they leap off the screen and into America's living rooms, as swimmer Michael Phelps and figure skater Sarah Hughes have.

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Friday brought the ebullience of Julia Mancuso in the snow, schussing to a giant-slalom gold amid weather best suited for a yeti, and Ted Ligety could yet add a golden flourish to the finish in Saturday's slalom. But with Ms. Cohen's backdoor silver, these Games appear at last consigned to a faceless end for many Americans.

By the numbers, America is on track for its second-highest medal count in a Winter Olympics, beating the historic 40 percent drop in medals for a nation after it hosts the Games. More important, it has showed that it can stay with the world's elite winter-sports nations away from home turf.

"The United States is doing quite well," says David Wallechinsky, author of "The Complete Book of the Winter Olympics."

But the manner of the team's success has often failed to capture the imagination. With speed-skater Shani Davis's brilliance has come surliness. With rival Chad Hedrick's tenacity has come stubbornness. And with snowboarder Lindsey Jacobellis, there was a moment of youthful madness that cost her a gold medal. The Wheaties box beckoning, no one has struck quite the right pose.

It is one of the dangers of NBC's Olympic enterprise: No likable stars, no ratings. The drop might not be as bad as it has been portrayed. Ratings are down dramatically from Athens and Salt Lake, but that is an unfair comparison. The summer Olympics are far more popular, and domestic Games draw more attention. Comparing Turin with Nagano, the ratings drop is consistent with the general decline in network viewers.

Moreover, with the time difference, everyone knows what happened before NBC even airs in the evening. "The increasing use of the Internet is making it more and more difficult to present a delayed version of the Olympics on TV," says Mr. Wallechinsky.

Yet when Michelle Kwan pulled out, NBC's lost its clear superstar. There was the hope that Cohen could fill that niche Thursday night. A favorite in America's favorite event, she had the field to herself. Win, and she would be "Torino" to American memory.

Yet it was over almost as soon as it began as Cohen toppled to the ice on her first jump and managed to stay up on the second only by putting a hand down. The silver lining of her performance was a linebacker's grit to hang on when the rest of her performance spread before her like 100 yards of disaster.

Afterward, she was so sure that she had lost a medal that she changed out of her costume. Perhaps she was fortunate to win silver in front of Russian Irina Slutskaya, but there surely was only one deserving gold medalist in Japan's Shizuka Arakawa, and for strong favorites Cohen and Ms. Slutskaya, any other color of medal was largely academic.

The same could be said for the impressions of America in general, where five-time world champion and two-time Olympic medalist Kwan, unquestionably one of the greatest figure skaters of all-time, is known mostly for her failure to win Olympic gold.

Cohen's saga has not been as long or as engaging as Ms. Kwan's, but this Olympics her hopes were the same. Yet again this Olympics, the skater with the least to lose skated the best on the final night.

In Nagano, it was Tara Lipinski snatching the top spot from Kwan. In Salt Lake, it was Ms. Hughes with a skate that famously threw her coach into hysterics. Thursday, it was Ms. Arakawa, who came in overshadowed by a compatriot who wasn't even here: 15-year-old Mao Asada, who was too young to compete.

"As I was third in the short program, I was hoping to win a medal," said Arakawa afterward. "But I forced myself not to think about it, and I'm really, really surprised."

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