US looks to future after worst Winter Olympic showing in 52 years

At the beginning of the Olympic Winter Games, a United States team of some 200 athletes strode proudly into McMahon Stadium, wide-brimmed, white hats perched jauntily above beaming faces. Back home, millions of Americans settled back to watch, satisfied that these young people had the look of winners.

Only a few, however, actually had the makings of medal snatchers. But although this situation was well known to the experts and widely predicted in pre-Olympics forecasts, it only sank in gradually on the general public as the Games wore on and Americans pocketed just six medals in 123 events - their lowest total in 52 years.

Thus the United States has done worse, but this is no consolation to a citizenry convinced Uncle Sam should do better. And clearly people are unsettled by the continuing success of the Soviets and East Germans, who orbit like Sputniks in the Olympic firmament.

``What gives here?,'' was the implicit question on the public's lips.

To get an answer, the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) has called for an outside review by a committee chaired by George Steinbrenner, who of course is best known as the controversial owner who has turned the New York Yankees into baseball's longest running soap opera. To say the least, he seems an odd choice. But USOC president Robert Helmick felt he was the man for the job, partly because of his long involvement with amateur athletics, and also because he doesn't mince words.

``We're going to tell it like it is, and that may not please some people,'' Steinbrenner said. ``We're going to do our best to be very constructive and be part of a solution, if a solution is necessary, and not part of the problem.''

One objective is to determine whether the USOC is getting enough from its investment. In the midst of the America's latest struggle at winning Winter Olympic medals, the USOC issued a statement indicating it had sunk more than $7.5 million into preparation of winter athletes and calling for ``accountability [by the various sport national governing bodies] and a relationship to performance and results.''

But the United States is basically an underdeveloped winter sports nation that must play catchup. And it isn't easy when there is so little public interest in the competitive side of Nordic skiing, which still offers more medals (39) than any other sport, and such small talent pools in sports like luge, bobsled, biathlon, and ski jumping. Thus far, Americans have responded in one of the only ways they know how - they've fed money into elite development programs, Olympic training centers, equipment, travel subsidies, etc. This has largely been done through corporate and individual contributions.

But as Mike Leonard, a member of the USOC's athletes' advisory counsel, points out: ``You can't go out and buy medals; it doesn't work.''

The hockey team probably proves that. Since winning the gold at Lake Placid in 1980, it has had no difficulty securing major corporate sponsorship. But burdened by expectations, Team USA has finished a disappointing seventh at each of the last two Olympics.

Steinbrenner says he recognizes the difficulties of keeping pace with highly focused, state-run Olympic programs, but that many Americans understandably retain a can-do outlook.

``On two occasions the hockey team has won against tremendous odds [in 1960 and '80],'' he points out, ``so the American public says to itself, `Well, they've done it before so why can't they do it again?''

In the example cited though, the United States had the home-ice advantage each time.

Donna de Varona, a 1964 swimming gold medalist and a member of the USOC task force, has been involved in amateur sports scene for quite some time.

``What I'm very concerned with, and I think the commission has to look at,'' she says, ``is the way in which the USOC functions. How do we select our teams? Are we giving enough support to our coaches ...?. Are our national governing bodies able to work with the collegiate community? Do we cater to just professional sports? Are our children fit?''

Clearly it's not realistic to expect that the overall fabric of American sport will be rewoven for the benefit of the Olympic effort. Some retailoring might be possible here and there, though, particularly in making facilities more available and integrating winter sports into schools.

That's a grassroots issue. In terms of honing the skills of elite athletes, the USOC has joined the rapidly accelerating sports science race. Its six-year-old program in this field has gone from a $250,000 annual budget to one of $2 million. Efforts have been made to use physiological, psychological, and biomechanical studies to assist athletes. High-tech research projects are ongoing to develop better equipment. And during the Olympics, the USOC announced plans to implement a computer network to serve in improving training techniques.

The next and perhaps most important step, says Charles Dillman, the director of the USOC's sports science program, is to impart knowledge to coaches - an area in which he says the US lags far behind.

These and other efforts may contribute toward attaining this objective. Whatever the level of achievement, however, American athletes would do well to enjoy their accomplishments with as much unqualified joy as luger Bonny Warner.

Even hours after her sixth-place finish, the best ever by an American, she was brimming with enthusiasm, hugging friends and strangers at a press conference. It was a perfect example of what the Olympics are supposed to be about instead of nationalistic fervor and emphasis on medals.

``I said I'd be ecstatic with a top six finish and I'm ecstatic,'' she bubbled. ``It goes to show that you don't need to win a medal to be excited.''

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