The U.S. has more qualifying athletes at this year’s Winter Games than any other competing country. But as of Wednesday evening, they were falling behind much smaller countries in the overall medal count.
With 230 total athletes, the U.S. has more representatives than host Russia (226) and Winter Games mainstay Canada (221), with Germany (153), Switzerland (168), Austria (130) and Norway (134) rounding out the pack. Overall athlete numbers are no indication of success, since many factors (conditions, injuries, disqualifications, etc.) can affect who actually competes and in what. As an example, Shaun White was a favorite in snowboarding slopestyle but pulled out at the last minute citing injury and course concerns and wasn’t replaced. More on that in a minute.
After several strong medal showings since they hosted the Winter Games in Salt Lake City in 2002, the U.S. was having a subpar year by their recently high standards through midweek. They were second overall in 2002 with 34 medals, second in Torino in 2006 with 25, and led the pack in Vancouver in 2010 with a stunning 37. They are second all-time to Norway in total medals (253), gold medals (87), and silvers (95).
Their prodigious streak was being tarnished as the Olympics neared Saturday’s halfway point. That was partially thanks to underperforming in their historically stronger events. The U.S. was tied for fourth by Wednesday’s medal count with Russia (9 overall), trailing Norway (12), Canada and the Netherlands (10 apiece), and with Germany close behind (8). It’s one thing for the country to finish no higher than 14th in the biathlon, or 8th in cross-country skiing. Competing countries’ programs have a head start of hundreds of years. Snowboarding, though? Short-track speedskating? Those have become the butter on American bread and have yielded mixed results.
Individual favorites have had an especially tough time. In the men’s 1000m on Wednesday, speedskater Shani Davis disappointed with an eighth-place finish, unable to find a second gear throughout his race. Long in the shadow of medal magnet Apolo Anton Ohno, short-tracker J.R. Celski missed his breakout chance on Monday after he was bumped during the 1500m finals and finished fourth. Bode Miller and White both missed strong chances at medals and, worse, the U.S. didn’t have a single man on the podium during the men’s halfpipe event, typically one of its strongest. When they have medaled, overwhelming favorites and reigning champions, like Hannah Kearney in women’s moguls, have had to settle for bronze. The U.S. is tied for the lead in those with six.
Weather to blame?
Sixty degrees Fahrenheit doesn’t sound so bad for mid-February, unless you’re a Winter Games athlete. In that case, it sounds downright awful.
In Sochi proper, temperatures have been so warm that spectators are taking dips in the Black Sea. Events held near the host town in chilled indoor arenas (hockey, figure skating, et al), aren’t affected. But the situation near alpine host Krasnaya Polyana has been troubling. On-mountain temps reached more than 50 degrees to start the week, causing snowboard halfpipe practices to be pushed back and world-class athletes to fall en masse during training runs on it. As the pipe publicly drew the ire of some competitors, officials struggled to even out the slope of its 22-foot walls and solidify the corn-like snow gathering in between them, creating ruts and bumps not befitting an international stage.
On the slopes, athletes were stuffing their race suits with as much snow as they could hold to keep cool. British skier Chemmy Alcott reportedly used journalists for shade, fearing a burn. A hole developed toward the top of the women’s downhill run that required patching before the competition could continue. U.S. skier Bode Miller, he of the two fastest downhill training runs during last week’s colder temperatures, was bumped back to the tail end of the event on Sunday and was slowed severely by the melting course. While he made no visible mistakes, his time lagged well behind those starting earlier. He finished eighth.
Sochi workers and officials prepared for these eventualities, and have been using a blend of snowmaking, ice injections, and trucked-in snow from nearby storage sites to maintain the course quality as best they can. Riders were more complimentary of the pipe’s condition on Tuesday. But the weather will continue to play a significant role in the Olympic outcomes going forward.
U.S. superstar Shaun White caused a stir late last week when he pulled out of the snowboarding slopestyle competition, following a fall in a training run and concerns over the course quality. At the time, White said he wanted to focus on his strongest event, the halfpipe, which made sense, even if the late withdrawal meant the U.S. wouldn’t have time to bring an additional athlete to Sochi to take his place.
After his qualifying runs, White seemed to have made a strong decision. On a halfpipe fraught with rough edges and soft flats, White scored the second round’s best run, a 95.75, and looked poised to repeat his gold medal performance from Vancouver. But fate had a dose of humility in store. White had two significant miscues in the final round’s runs, almost breaking his board on the pipe’s lip at one point, and finished in fourth place (which many argued was generous).
Unaccustomed to being off the podium, White said afterward that he needed a break from snowboarding and planned to spend time touring with his band. The irony there? White first got interested in music when he won a guitar at a snowboarding competition.
Halfpipe and Slopestyle Redemption
Despite their rough start to the medal count, the U.S. squad found rapid redemption as the women took to an improved halfpipe on Wednesday morning and the men tackled the slopestyle course on Thursday. Where the men’s halfpipe podium was devoid of Americans, the women’s was dominated by them. Upstart Kaitlyn Farrington, 24, of Utah came out of nowhere to best favorites Australian Torah Bright, silver, 2002 gold medalist Kelly Clark, bronze, and Hannah Teter, both of Vermont. It was the best U.S. finish in a single event at the time.
Not to be outdone, the men bettered those results the only way they could in slopestyle: by taking all three medals. Joss Christensen, 22, of Utah threw down an awe-inspiring run, complete with a triple cork, scoring a 95.80 and taking gold. Flanking him atop the podium were Gus Kenworthy, a 22-year-old from Denver (and already gaining notoriety for his stray Sochi puppy rescues), and Nick Goepper, a 19-year-old from Indiana. They took silver and bronze respectively.
According to the Sochi site, Goepper’s skiing philosophy is “the course is your canvas and the skis are your paintbrushes.” The three American men painted a pretty picture on Thursday.
A tie? In Skiing?
Fans don’t like a tie. But surely Tina Maze of Slovenia and Dominique Gisin of Switzerland will take it.
Maze and Gisin finished with the exact same time in the women’s downhill competition on Wednesday, at 1:41.57. It was the first-ever tie in Olympic skiing history, and Maze became the first gold medalist ever to hail from Slovenia. While the tie might have been a surprise, the final standings weren’t. Gisin, Maze, and Lara Gut of Switzerland finished one-one-three and were all strong favorites to medal. The best U.S. finisher was Julia Mancuso in eighth, a disappointing finish for Mancuso in what is arguably her best event.
Golden Warm-ups and Star Wars
Though she finished tenth in the standings, U.S. luger Kate Hansen stands alone in warm-up dances. Here’s the proof.
And Star Wars fans were probably pretty intrigued to see some Imperial Walkers descend on Sochi, even if the moguls skiers weren’t.