VANCOUVER — The U.S. Olympic team that parades into the opening ceremony of the Winter Games tonight will bear, for the first time, the look and swagger of a winter sports powerhouse.
The United States has medal prospects in sports well-known and obscure to Americans, raising a glimmer of hope that it can, for the first time in 78 years, top the medals table.
Despite its dominance at the Summer Olympics, the United States historically has been a second-tier Winter Olympic nation. Good at figure skating and snowboarding, it has been pushed around in more traditional snow pursuits by Germany, Norway, Russia, Austria and others.
But after more than a decade of trying to spur medal production from untapped disciplines, the U.S. Olympic Committee has finally assembled a deep, balanced team with medal hopes from ice dancing to cross-country skiing. Some relatively obscure sports in the United States might be thrust to center stage.
Knocking off Germany, which has won the overall medal count at the past three Olympics, and the Canadians, who invested more than $100 million in their winter athletes in hopes of making a smash at their Games, remains a daunting proposition. But the diverse strength of the 216-member U.S. team promises good theater, serious competition and an introduction perhaps to unfamiliar pursuits.
"It's unprecedented what we are going to Vancouver with," said Steve Roush, a former USOC chief of sports performance and now a senior consultant for TSE Consulting, which specializes in sports. "I don't think the USOC has ever fielded a delegation that from top to bottom, discipline to discipline, walks in with the capabilities the 2010 team walks in with."
Besides its big stars — two-time overall World Cup champion Alpine skier Lindsey Vonn; snowboard cover boy Shaun White; soul-patch-adorned short-track speed skater Apolo Ohno — the Americans have a host of fast-rising ones in little-known, less-understood sports, such as Nordic combined and biathlon, disciplines in which they have earned precisely zero medals in 96 years of Winter Games competition.
"Some of our breakout sports are going to add a lot of opportunities to be in medal contention," said Michael English, who succeeded Roush in June.
Twelve years ago, the United States came home from the 1998 Games in Nagano, Japan, demoralized. It had finished fifth in the medal count in the three Olympics that came after an abysmal showing at the 1988 Games in Calgary (two gold medals and six overall, ninth in the medal table).
The frustration, combined with desire to put forward a competent showing in 2002 at Salt Lake City, resulted in a major funding boost for winter sports along with a strategic effort to ensure that the money was well-spent.
After the arrival of the USOC's first chief executive, Norm Blake, in 2000, the USOC deployed liaisons to each national sport governing body to figure out precisely where money and assistance could net results, while implementing a "money-for-medals" strategy that awarded U.S. grants based on merit and achievement.
But USOC officials simultaneously increased efforts to pinpoint underperforming areas in which athletes seemed to be on the cusp of success. The $36.6 million spent on winter athletes entering the 2002 Games was a major boost because of an $18 million injection through the "Podium 2002" program. The top eight athletes in various sports qualified for those grants. Entering the 2006 Games in Turin, Italy, the USOC allocated $36 million again.
The impact was profound. After winning 13 medals in 1998 and 1994, the United States won 34 in 2002 and 25 in 2006, finishing second overall in each year.
Shortly after Turin, USOC officials increased their winter sports funding by an additional 50 percent, to $54.7 million. Meantime, the USOC also joined with the national governing bodies to institute on-the-ground initiatives.
They created a roving kitchen staff to provide skiers with meals as they competed in Europe and hired traveling ski techs. They provided sports psychologists to biathlon; strength and conditioning coaches to curling; and safety pads on the sides of the short-track speed skating rink in Salt Lake City.
They also offered technical enhancements for a number of disciplines, including high-tech video systems at training venues for immediate playbacks.
The United States now has world champions in men's bobsled (Steve Holcumb), women's luge (Erin Hamlin) and Nordic combined (Todd Lodwick and Bill Demong), and a world silver-medal winner in cross-country skiing (Kikkan Randall). A biathlete (Tim Burke) led the World Cup circuit as of late December.
Lodwick, competing in his fifth Games, said the changes have made a world of difference. "Now we're at a time where we have all the tools we need."