US Team Prospects Brighter Now

Poor showing in '88 led to soul-searching that may pay off here

IF football coaches fret about proving themselves in game-scarce seasons, imagine the pressure the United States Olympic family must feel to produce every four years.

The Games are the all-important final exam, and when the grades are passed out at the 16th Winter Olympics, which began Saturday and run through the 23rd here in the French Alps, the US Olympic contingent is hoping for a much-improved report card over 1988.

That was when America's winter athletes went into virtual hibernation, winning just six medals (two gold, one silver, three bronze) - their poorest showing since 1936.

Even before the Calgary, Canada, Games had ended, the US Olympic Committee announced the formation of a task force to address what needed to be done. Handed the job of chairing the committee was George Steinbrenner, a major-league baseball owner known for ruffling Yankee feathers and hiring and firing numerous managers.

Ironically, Steinbrenner has said that patience is required, and that the impact of US initiatives probably won't be fully felt until after 1994, when the winter Olympics next convene.

Already, however, athletes are noticing some differences.

Bonny Warner, a member of the US luge team since 1981, remembers having to pay her own airfare to Europe when she first joined the national team. "Now athletes who need money for training are getting it. Some athletes receive money for job training and others receive money for tuition assistance."

Though the procedure for determining assistance defies simple explanation, the money definitely has begun to filter down to where the skate blades meet the ice - sometimes to pay for additional coaching, improved training facilities, or high-tech equipment, but also in direct aid. Assistance amounts to about $2,500 per athlete per year. (See accompanying story.)

There is evidence of improved performance since the Grants and Athlete Assistance programs began. In 1989, the average US international ranking in all sports, winter and summer, was 19.71. By 1991, it had risen to 13.44. It should continue to rise, even if by default, as East European athletes struggle to regroup without state support. "They've got to find sponsors now, too," says speed skater Bonnie Blair, one of the few minor-sport American athletes who's been able to cultivate significant commercial sponsorship.

"Things have gone OK for me, but I'm not a Michael Jordan by any means," Ms. Blair says. "Granted, the situation has gotten better, especially since '84 and the Los Angeles [summer] Olympics, but we're all in this because we love what we're doing, not because the government takes care of us. We need to take care of ourselves."

The US Olympic effort has never been dependent on government support and looks to the American public in general, and large corporations in particular, for much of its income. The United States Olympic Committee (USOC) continuously escalates its fund-raising efforts, and has expanded into such ventures as licensing Olympic trading cards and marketing Olympic lottery tickets in a number of states.

Some of the US Olympic challenges are organizational. Within the past year it has seen the behavior of two top executives come under question. Robert Helmick was forced to resign as USOC president when severe conflicts of interest came to light. Harvey Schiller, the USOC's executive director, has stayed on despite admitting lesser violations of USOC standards while being cleared of more serious charges by an outside investigator.

Schiller avoids dwelling on medal counts and says his job is to "create a framework of success" for the US team, which has never been a winter Games superpower.

WHEN stories like that of figure skater Calla Urbanski surface, recounting her $25,000 debt, waitressing work, and considerable fund-raising efforts with pairs partner Rocky Marval, Schiller can only shrug. "It's absolutely impossible to support every American athlete to the degree that they probably deserve." (Mike Moran, a USOC spokesman, reports that the Urbanski-Marval team receives $10,000 annually from the organization.)

There are times that the USOC - and the governing bodies under its wing - trip over their own feet. The US bobsledding federation's selection procedures have led to angry challenges before each of the last two Olympics, and the biathlon folks, who oversee the shoot-and-ski athletes, left themselves no latitude to name their only serious medal hope, Anna Sonnerup, to the team after she had an off day at the Olympic team trials.

Despite such missteps, the US winter Olympic delegation enters these Games with realistic hopes for a better showing than in '88.

American women, who swept the top three places at last year's world figure-skating championships, expect Kristi Yamaguchi, Nancy Kerrigan, and Tonya Harding to win at least two medals. A veteran cast, led by Blair, Eric Flaim, and Dan Jansen, should parlay its experience into a small cache of speed-skating medals.

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