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Despite Bright Spots, A Disappointing Medal Haul for Team USA

25 Feb 2018 10:15 am
By Rachel Bachman 

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea--If the medal count were an Olympic event, the United States would finish these Winter Games off the podium.

Team USA's fourth-place finish in Pyeongchang, with 23 medals, was its lowest at a Winter Games since Nagano 1998, when it finished sixth with 13 medals. Norway's 39 medals set an Olympic record for the Winter Games.

Canada won 29 medals and Germany 31.

The U.S. medal total is down from 28 in Sochi four years ago, a drop of nearly 18%, and a nearly 38% drop from its all-time high of 37 at the 2010 Vancouver Games.

The question for the U.S. is, to borrow a phrase from Alabama football coach Nick Saban, How good do you want to be?

"We always want to do better," said Alan Ashley, the U.S. Olympic Committee's chief of sport performance. He said he would examine Norway's approach in the wake of the Games--and that he plans to meet with athletes and coaches across all sports to seek improvement. He also noted that dozens of American athletes finished in fourth to sixth place

"I'm actually probably more encouraged now than I've ever been," he said. "Because even though people can say, 'Well, you didn't hit your medal count, you didn't get to the right level,' look at the depth of our team."

The U.S. did have spectacular performances to celebrate. The women's hockey team claimed gold for the first time since 1998 in a shootout over Canada. The men's curling team, exuding dad-bod charm, won the sport's first American gold.

Snowboarders Chloe Kim and Shaun White showed their mastery of the halfpipe, where the U.S. won six medals. Nearly half of all U.S. medals came in freestyle skiing and snowboarding.

Americans showed their range, winning events in 11 of 15 sports--a record for any nation at the Winter Games, according to Olympic historian Bill Mallon. That included their first gold in cross-country skiing.

Yet in a few sports the U.S. once closely contested, Americans have atrophied.

U.S. speedskaters, once among the most decorated winter sports athletes, have won one medal in the past two Olympics, a bronze in the women's team pursuit in Pyeongchang. U.S. short-track speedskaters have won two, and just one in these Games.

The U.S. women's figure skaters finished 9th, 10th and 11th, their worst-ever showing at the Winter Olympics. Russian teenagers took gold and silver.

"I thought of today as my 'Dancing with the Stars' audition," American Mirai Nagasu said after, a summation widely decried for its seeming lack of ambition. She later said thinking about the show was a tactic to calm her nerves.

Mikaela Shiffrin, 22, won a gold and a silver, and Lindsey Vonn a bronze on a starry women's Alpine ski team. Yet with 33-year-old Vonn calling these her last Olympics, the team has little proven talent going forward besides Shiffrin. The U.S. men failed to win a medal for the first time since 1998.

"Medals, they're not necessarily what the Olympics are all about," Vonn said. "The Olympics are a unifying event, one that has profound impact on the entire world."

The nations that finished ahead of the U.S. in Pyeongchang all made radical changes in the wake of subpar performances at previous Winter Games.

Norway formed Olympiatoppen, its sports-performance organization, after single-digit medal counts in 1984 and 1988. Its success is partly owed to a funding structure that provides more resources for poorer, less accomplished sports. Top-performers like cross-country skiing receive ample support in coaching and sports science.

At these Olympics, Norway won 16 more medals than the U.S.--with half the athletes.

Canada's Own the Podium sports-funding program was born of the embarrassment of hosting two Olympics without winning a gold medal. It yielded 14 golds at Vancouver 2010 and a record medal haul of 29 in Pyeongchang.

The Wall Street Journal's medal prediction of 36 wound up being unrealistic for the U.S., but not ambitious enough for Norway, which eclipsed our 36-medal projection.

To be sure, some nations benefited from the absence of a number of top athletes from Russia, who were banned from the Games for doping sanctions. The team competing under under penalty as neutral Olympic Athletes from Russia finished with 17 medals.

Team USA has four years and another long trip to Asia--Beijing 2022--to plan its Winter Games response.

Louise Radnofsky and Sara Germano contributed to this article.

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Write to Rachel Bachman at rachel.bachman@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

February 25, 2018 05:15 ET (10:15 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2018 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
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