When it comes to the Winter Olympics, the United States has more often than not been something of a sleeping giant. Other countries steal the internationa limelight while good ol' Uncle Sam pockets medals in dribs and drabs. But signs that this may be changing should come when the XIIIth Winter Games open here this week.
The US will be fielding its best and perhaps most experienced team ever, leaving little question that the previous American high of 11 winter medals will easily be surpassed. Certainly the locale is right, since Lake Placid is where the United States in 1932 made its finest showing to date.
If the Americans mount a gold rush in any sport it will be in speed skating. Eric Heiden and his younger sister, Beth, both world champions from the University of Wisconsin, are expected to harvest a combined total of half a dozen or more golds. Adding enviable depth to the American team are Peter and Leah Poulos Mueller, veterans of two other Olympics who wed following medal-winning performances in 1976.
The strength of the US team is a continuing source of amazement. Up until 1977, West Allis, Wis., owned the country's only full-size, refrigerated oval. Though there's now a second here in Lake Placid, other countries, such as Holland, with 11 such facilities, and Japan, with nine, far surpass the United States. Furthermore, only a tight coterie of some 4,000 American athletes have seriously taken up the sport, which is all but forgotten by the press and public during non-Olympic years. Still, a highly dedicated and loyal following has grown up around speed skating, much like that in the swimming community.
As the most heralded products as a strong development program, the Heidens carry a heavy burden as the pace-setters for the entire US Olympic effort. If the home-ice advantage works in their favor, they could set the tone for everyone else, just as Jack Shea and Irving Jaffee did by winning four speed skating gold medals here 48 years ago.
The 400-meter oval isn't the only ice surface where American blades will go on parade. Yankee figure skaters never looked better, with four past or present world champions in serious contention for top honors. The competition is incredibly fierce, though, and the smallest wobble could prove costly to the American headliners: reigning world women's champion Linda Fratianne, reining world pairs champions Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner, and 1978 men's world titleholder Charles Tickner.
Because the United States has produced such a long line of female Olympic champions (Tenley Albright, Carol Heiss, Peggy Fleming Dorothy Hamill), the pressure will be on Fratianne to bring home the bacon. An eighth-place finisher in '76 when she was the youngest member of the US Olympic team, Linda possesses all the free skating artistry the crowds love. Despite an occasional off performance, her maturity and raw talent give her the edge entering the competition.
In the pairs, Tai (pronounced "Tye") and Randy face the difficult task of unseating the defending gold medalists, the Soviet husband/wife team of Aleksandr Zaitsev and Irina Rodnina. During the latter couple's absence from international competition (resulting from the birth of their first child), the popular California skaters broke the Soviet domination of the world pairs title. But prior to 1979, Rodnina and Zaitsev had won four straight world crowns, and some think this tradition of success will work in their favor. The last American to capture the men's gold medal was David Jenkins in 1960 at Squaw Valley, a draought that could be ended by the exciting but inconsistent Tickner. Though the top male skater two years ago, he fell to fourth in the world last year, finishing behind foreign rivals Jan Hoffman of East Germany and '76 silver medalist Vladimir Kovalev of the USSR as well as US teammate David Santee. All will vie for honors here along with Britain's promising Robin Cousins, a student of Carlo Fassi, Dorothy Hamill's teacher.
Things do not look quite so bright in the Alpine and Nordic ski events, but then again, they look much more hopeful than usual. Cindy Nelson, with a bronze in the downhill, kept the US from being shut out in the Alpine disciplines at Innsbruck. She's back, and the men have their first gold medal threat in years in Phil Mahre. Mahre, s strong contender for the '79 World Cup title until he broke an ankle at Lake Placid, could win medals in both the slalom and giant slalom.
Once a weakling in Nordic events, the US now refuses to be bullied by the Russians, Germans, and Scandanavians. The growth of cross-country skiing, a beefed-up development program, and Bill Koch have seen to that. Koch, the surprise second-place finisher in the 30 kilometers in Innsbruck, joined Cindy Nelson as the only other non-skating American medal winner at the '76 games. A nine-year veteran of international racing, he's definitely in the running for some sort of hardware even if his chances of becoming the first US Nordic skier to break the gold barrier are quite slim.
About the best anyone expects from the women is a top 10 finish by Allison Owen- Spencer an Alaskan with darkhorse potential.
Jim Denney, the oldest of the three jumping Denney brothers from Duluth, Minnesota, gives Uncle Sam a rare chance for a medal in either the 70- or 90 -meter jump. During last winter's pre-Olympic meet here, he soared to a third-place finish in the 90, perhaps indicating that after 17 years in the sport he's reaching his peak.
The United States took a crop of baby-faced youths onto the hockey rink four yers ago and just missed winning the bronze. Under Coach Herb Brooks, the current program has escalated to a point almost unthinkable in the past, all with the intent of making sure a medal doesn't slip away this time. Still young , but with some 60 games under their belts against both pro and amateur clubs, the Americans could slip onto the victory stand if they get by Sweden and Czechoslovakia in their first two, tough outings.
For the most part, the US will supply only token representation in the biathlon and luge events, but prospects in the bobsled don't look so bleak. The top US four-man bobsled team set a course record last week over the treacherou Mt. Hoevenberg run a sign that bodes well for the future despite a prolonged American slump in this event. The presence of two tracks athletes, former Olympic hurdle champion Wilie Davenport and New York State decathlon champion Jeff Gadley, has helped to gove this quartet the fast running start so important to success. Davenport and Gadley are the first black Americans to participate in the Winter Olympics.