Park City, Utah Feb. 12, 2002--In the roughly 150 Olympic alpine ski racing events that have been contested since 1936, the U.S. Ski Team has managed to pull in a grand total of 25 medals. While the Europeans, particularly the Austrians, have dominated, the U.S. always played fourth fiddle, which is no surprise since alpine skiing is a European invention. (We won't even discuss the Scandinavian dominated nordic events, where the U.S. has managed just once medal since it collected a bronze in jumping in the inaugural 1924 Winter Olympics.)
Enter the new school disciplines of freestyle and snowboarding at the 2002 Salt Lake Games, both distinct American creations, and we are singing a very different tune. While U.S. alpiners are 0-for-2 in these Games, the mogul skiers have picked up two medals in two events and the snowboarders have already collected a gaudy four medals in the women's and men's halfpipe, including a historic sweep in the latter.
Just four days into the fortnight, the freestylers, who were brought into the Olympic movement in 1992, and the riders, who debuted in Nagano in 1998, have already achieved 60 percent of the U.S.'s once ludicrous prediction of winning 10 Olympic medals. The new schoolers are making U.S. Ski (and Snowboarding) Team CEO Bill Marolt, a decided old schooler, look awfully good.
"I'm not at all surprised at the sweep," says Alan Ashley, the ski team's VP of athletics. "Those guys can go big." They also know how to keep things in perspective, critical for a big pressure event such as this five-ring circus. After Ross Powers, Danny Kass and J.J. Thomas went 1-2-3, Ashley took a frantic call from a U.S.O.C. official who was wondering where the trio happened to be that evening. There was an Olympic medals ceremony to be held and a huge, cheering crowd waiting in the Medals Plaza in downtown Salt Lake City. Ashley dialed up their cell: The snowboarders were partying backstage at the Foo Fighters concert next door. There has been controversy and second guessing about counter-culture snowboarding entering the staid Olympic movement, but even industry giant Jake Burton, a strong naysayer, was on hand in Park City to witness what was arguably the sport's finest moment.
The freestylers have also done their part to kick-start the 2002 red, white and blue effort. The U.S. has dominated the sport since its inception, and the squad is on the way to continuing that stranglehold in Salt Lake. The team had the maximum four legit medal contenders in both men's and women's moguls, with Shannon Bahrke and Travis Major grabbing the silvers.
In 18 Olympic events since 1992, the U.S. Freestyle Team has earned 11 medals. In six events since 1998, the snowboarders have reeled in a half dozen. The members of the alpine team seem poised to follow their lead. Bode Miller won the final training run for the downhill portion of the combined on Tuesday and should bring the alpine squad its first medal when that event is held on Wednesday. His talented teammates, arguably the finest alpine assembly since 1984, are psyched to follow. Here's hoping the old school will learn something about winning from the new school in 2002.