VANCOUVER — In the beginning, it was a double-barreled combination of luck and aggression. Two events, four medals, and an unexpectedly sweet ending to the first full day of the 2010 Winter Olympics.
Clearly, the silver-bronze finish by Apolo Anton Ohno and J.R. Celski — two skaters with direct ties to Colorado Springs — in the men's short-track speedskating 1,500 meters owed much to simple opportunism, as two Koreans in front of them collided and crashed on the final turn. But Ohno and Celski had made it through two tough rounds to the finals, not just on good fortune.
Meanwhile, nobody was downplaying Hannah Kearney and Shannon Bahrke winning gold and bronze in the women's moguls, the first of multiple early frustrations for the Canadians.
Still, the conventional wisdom went, the host Canadians and the ever-persistent Germans would take over at some point. And the U.S. contingent would assume its place behind them — modestly successful, but nothing outlandish.
Instead, the medals have just kept on coming: one here, two there, gold here, silver and bronze there.
"No, we didn't expect this much," admits Scott Blackmun, the U.S. Olympic Committee's new CEO. "We're ahead of projections, and by a fair amount."
So while the "Woe Canada" headlines have poured in, and Europeans have groused about their failures, the Americans have stayed on track.
One case in point has been in Alpine skiing at Whistler, where Bode Miller, Lindsey Vonn and Julia Mancuso have piled up the podium finishes. Meanwhile, Canada was being embarrassed, shut out on its own mountain. And Austria's men — the Los Angeles Lakers of skiing — didn't have a single medal as of Tuesday, with one Austrian newspaper splashing pictures of four skiers across a page under the headline "LOSERS."
Not too optimistic
Just before the start of any Games, the USOC asks each sport's national governing body for realistic, off-the-record assessments of what to expect, then compiles them into an overall medal projection.
Blackmun and USOC chief of sport performance Mike English have kept those numbers a secret, and understandably so. But as the medal count surpassed 20 last weekend, with another full week to go, USOC officials couldn't hide their pleasure.
"It's been an outstanding performance, and I'm very proud of what the team has done," English says, even as he reiterates that the USOC's focus has been more on performance than medals. "Medals come out of a process, and our focus has been on that process. It's just a matter of the process helping us dial in the maximum results for everyone."
Blackmun also says the expectations weren't front-loaded: "In reality, they're about the same for the second half of the Games as the first half."
Do the fuzzy math, and it sounds as though the USOC probably was looking at maybe 26 to 28 medals. More than the 25 in Torino, but nowhere close to the 34 in 2002 at Salt Lake City.
"We just didn't want to put pressure on any particular sports or athletes," Blackmun says. "That really wouldn't be fair."
Granted, it's not like every sport has been an American party. Curling has been a disaster for both the U.S. men and women. Women's speedskating, both on the short and long tracks, hasn't produced a medal of any kind.
In luge and skeleton, American athletes have competed well but haven't cracked the medal lineup. Same for biathlon, ski jumping and cross-country skiing.
"We're still not the powerhouse in many of the sports," English says. "But we can make progress in all of them, as we have here in events like the Nordic combined."
Stars and structure
Blackmun and English, along with some officials of individual sports, have outlined several key factors to explain the U.S. accomplishments.
• The stars have come through. Miller, Vonn and Julia Mancuso have delivered in Alpine skiing. Ohno has added medals in short-track speedskating, and Shani Davis in long-track. Shaun White and Seth Wescott led the snowboarders to the podium, and Evan Lysacek conquered the world in men's figure skating.
"Those athletes have done so well, and others have followed their lead," Blackmun says.
• The preparations were thorough, with sufficient assistance for the different sports to help in training, pre-Olympic competition and dealing with injuries. Nowhere has that been more evident than with the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, which last year opened its $22.5 million Center for Excellence in Park City, Utah.
"It's the cornerstone for greater U.S. skiing and snowboarding success," says Bill Marolt, the USSA chief and former University of Colorado athletic director.
"That facility is a game-changer," English adds, "and it will yield benefits for many years to come."
Also, the USOC last year pumped an extra $16.5 million into its winter sports, helping defray costs for training and international competition, not to mention revenue lost by the member sports due to canceled sponsorships in the sour economy.
• Everyone has been comfortable here. In part, that comes from not having to cross an ocean or deal with jet lag. Vancouver's downtown is not even 30 miles north of the Canada-U.S. border, making it, as English puts it, "in our own backyard." And there's no language problem; French may be prevalent in eastern Canada, but English is dominant in British Columbia.
• Old-fashioned luck. Many times at past Olympics, U.S. athletes would have career-best efforts and times, only to fall just short of medals. Here, many of those — especially early — became bronze medals (Andrew Weibrecht in the men's Super-G, Bryon Wilson in the men's moguls, Celski in speedskating).
Yes, there have been fourths, such as in ice dancing and Nordic combined, but not enough to create negative momentum.
The right attitude
Along with those medals has come a group attitude that has made it hard for the Canadians, or anyone else, to feel resentful. No gloating or taunting, as has happened with some U.S. athletes in the past. No showboating, fights in bars or talking about "skiing wasted," all of which helped define the "ugly" Americans in 2006 at Torino's Winter Games.
"Our athletes have handled everything admirably," says Blackmun, whose experience in the organization about a decade ago included dealing with some controversies of the past. "In some cases, it's simply the same people being four years older and more mature."
There was preparation on that front as well: The USOC's "ambassador" program coached all Olympics-bound athletes on how to deal with the media attention and how to avoid embarrassments. The mentors for such sessions, Blackmun says, have been former Olympians such as speedskater Bonnie Blair, who came to Colorado Springs several weeks ago to meet with the U.S. women's hockey players during their final pre-Vancouver days.
Despite all that foundation, though, the USOC still didn't see this coming. And nobody wants to guess the ultimate outcome, though it'll probably be somewhere between 32 and 34 medals.
"We're still looking at more events in the final days where we have a chance to do well," English says. "But we still don't want to say where we might end up.
"No matter what, though, we'll be able to say we did everything we could in Vancouver."
The PR push is on
VANCOUVER — If you've been turning on your TV every night, chances are good that you've seen some of the 2010 Winter Olympics and caught a few of the U.S. athletes' many accomplishments.
Something you've certainly not seen, that's also crucial to the U.S. Olympic Committee, is the political work going on behind the scenes.
"We've been immersed in the most important thing that we do, which is our athletes competing in the Olympic Games," says USOC chief executive officer Scott Blackmun. "But right off the bat, we've also been able to work on our relationships in the worldwide movement."
It's safe to say that those relations have been strained in recent years, the result of failed U.S. bids for future Olympics and bickering over TV revenues. But during these Games, Blackmun and USOC president Larry Probst have hosted more than 40 members of the International Olympic Committee at the unpretentious USA House in downtown Vancouver. That kind of thing simply didn't happen in the past.
"This is not something we can change overnight, but it's a step in the right direction," Blackmun says. "Our objective is for them to get to know us, and us to get to know them."
USOC sponsorship and marketing people also have been busy, developing new corporate backers and cultivating others. As a result, Blackmun says, the USOC already has firm commitments for its entire revenue budget covering the quadrennium of 2009-12, which he puts at "somewhere between $600 and $650 million ... so it's nice that we can work on new directions and projects without being in as much of a sales mode."
There's another priority as well: using the successes and goodwill from these Winter Games to work on strengthening the USOC's ties to Colorado Springs.
"We hope the people of the Springs feel like they've been part of all this, because they have," Blackmun says. "And after we get home, you'll see us having more events and open houses focused on the community."
That includes a post-Games reception, with as many Winter Olympic athletes as possible, tentatively planned for March 25. And there should be more, after the USOC moves its offices in April from the Olympic Complex into the new downtown Olympic House at the corner of Tejon Street and Colorado Avenue.