Skiers, skaters lead strong US bid for Olympic gold at Sarajevo

Since 1980, memories of the US hockey team's ''miracle on ice'' and Eric Heiden's five gold medals have warmed the cockles of the American heart. Because of the boycott of the Moscow Summer Games, those memories had to to do double duty, and they've easily carried a nation in down-filled comfort ever since. But now the security blanket must be shed, and the door opened on the present tense of US Olympic hopes.

The outlook is good, though. There are strong figure skating and Alpine skiing contingents, a frisky, young hockey team with medal potential, and a scattering of athletes primed for stardom in other areas. And of course there's always the chance of an unexpected breakthrough, which is what happened when the US secured the hockey gold in '80, Barbara Cochran won the women's slalom in '72 , Bill Koch took a cross-country silver in '76, and speed skater Terry McDermott swooped onto the victory platform in '64.

Anticipation is running high, therefore, about what may happen during the next 13 days as the 1984 Winter Olympics unfold in this ancient Balkan city.

A note of caution is appropriate, however. The Games are not on American soil as they were at Lake Placid, N.Y., four years ago, and that could make a difference, especially for the hockey team.

On paper at least, the United States has a handful of potential superstars, even if none the magnitude of Heiden, who capitalized on one basic skill many times over. The USA, in fact, boasts the reigning world champions in both men's and women's figure skating (Scott Hamilton, Rosalynn Sumners) and Alpine skiing (Phil Mahre, Tamara McKinney) for the first time in history.

Hamilton, a three-time world champion, enters the men's competition as the clear-cut favorite, while Sumners is a sliver ahead of her rivals.

Thus far, Mahre and McKinney have not matched their success of a year ago, when they were crowned the world's best skiers. But they still are very definite medal threats in the slalom and giant slalom as are Phil's twin brother Steve and McKinney's teammate Christin Cooper.

If the hockey team produces any sort of sequel to 1980, the man of the hour could be 18-year-old forward Pat LaFontaine, who is holding a pro career in abeyance.

On the snowy fields of the Igman Plateau, Koch might even improve on his heroics of eight year years ago, when he broke through to grab a silver in the 30-kilometer cross-country event - still the only cross-country medal the US has ever won. Koch won the 1982 World Cup title and finished third last year.

The most noticeable void in the American galaxy exists in speed skating, where no one has emerged to continue a long tradition of excellence. Part of the reason is a rift in the US speed skating ranks. Half the team has practiced with coach Dianne Holum, the rest have worked out on their own due to disagreements with the sport's power structure.

Uncle Sam could conceivably come up empty on the frozen oval, which would be quite a switch for a country that has done better in this than in any other winter sport (38 medals of 109 won).

Up until now, the speed skaters have been able to surmount all odds - including lack of facilities, minimal public recognition, and meager financial support - in their quest for Olympic hardware. If they do so again, it would prove that there's still no substitute for individual initiative and dedication.

Basically, however, better backing, especially at the corporate level, has led to more extensive training and travel opportunities for US teams.

The women's Alpine skiers, for example, commenced their workouts last summer in Hawaii with an intensive exercise program, then moved on to New Zealand for three weeks of on-snow work. At about the same time the hockey team was beginning its schedule of 65 pre-Olympic exhibition games in Alaska.

Attempts to keep up with and even surpass the Joneses of Olympic sport have paid dividends, the '80 hockey fairy tale being Exhibit A and a quality women's ski team serving as the latest evidence. In 1982 the women Alpiners won the Nations Cup, and they were near the top again last year.

McKinney, who has excellent ''touch'' on the snow, suddenly came of age during last year's World Cup circuit, when she won the season-long point standings, a first for an American female.

All the American hopes in Sarajevo don't rest on her shoulders, though. Cooper won three medals at the 1982 world championships, and appears to be in top form after last season's knee injury. Veteran Cindy Nelson, meanwhile, is on the mend from a December mishap but hopes to be at full throttle in her third Olympics.

Nelson's bronze in the downhill was the only Alpine medal won by an American in 1976, while Phil Mahre's slalom silver averted a US shutout at Lake Placid.

The Mahres are again the heart of a men's team that lacks the depth of the women's squad. Even so, in mid January little-known Bill Johnson scored the first World Cup downhill victory ever by an American male - and his training times here indicate that it was no fluke, and he could be peaking at the right moment.

The sport where US expectations are running highest is figure skating. Led by Hamilton and Sumners, the American contingent has the potential to win some kind of medal in every discipline - men's, women's, pairs, and dancing.

The women's event finds three Americans in the hunt. Elaine Zayak, the 1982 world champion, was expected to battle it out with Sumners and East Germany's Katarina Witt, but at last month's national championships, Californian Tiffany Chin outshone both of her countrywomen in free skating to finish a strong second.

Kitty and Peter Carruthers have met with mixed results internationally, but the go-for-broke style of this sister-brother team could net the US its first pairs medal since 1960. And Judy Blumberg and Michael Seibert could rumba off with a bronze or silver in the dance.

The hockey team, of course, has the hardest act to follow. Realistically, no one can expect it to produce a replay of Lake Placid, but millions still hope against hope that the magic can be rekindled.

Phil Verchota and John Harrington, members of the '80 championship team, are the only returnees on the current roster, which is loaded with swift young skaters, three of whom are still in high school. Coach Lou Vairo believes this may be the best US squad ever, and after a cram course of games against college, pro, and international competition, the team is given a fighting chance to return home with a medal. A bronze, however, is probably all one can realistically wish for, given the expected 1-2 finish of strong Russian and Czechoslavakian teams.

Off the ice, US and Canadian officials have battled over the Olympic eligibility of several Canadian players, a dispute that may impact upon tonight's opening-round game between these border rivals.

Meanwhile it's possible that a handful of little-known athletes could emerge as heroes in a sport where Americans have traditionally not fared very well - Nordic skiing.Jim Galanes has recently joined Koch as a cross-country threat; Kerry Lynch is acknowledged to be one of the world's best in Nordic combined (racing and jumping); and Jeff Hastings is capable of grabbing some glory in ski jumping.

Sarajevo isn't wrapped in the red, white, and blue bunting the way Lake Placid was. So the big question for American athletes generally is: How will they do without ''home cooking?'' Uncle Sam is sending his best winter contingent yet to the dinner table, however, so restrained optimism is the order of the day.

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