The U.S. cross country team hadn’t won a medal since Bill Koch took silver in 1976
by Phil Johnson, originally published in The Daily Gazette, February 22, 2018
With the Olympics winding down toward Sunday’s closing ceremony, the issue of winning medals is popping up once again.
Years ago the goal of winter athletes throughout the country was to make the US Olympic team and participate in the games. Then came the report by the Steinbrenner (yes the Boss) Commission in 1988 after the Calgary Games stating that more emphasis needed to be put on winning competitions.
In 1996, when former Olympic downhill racer and University of Colorado athletic director Bill Marolt was named head of the US Ski Team, he had a simple message: “We don’t support athletes to participate in the Winter Olympics, we send them to win medals.”
Marolt’s “Best in the World” slogan, and the addition of snowboarding and freestyle events, gave the U.S. a big boost in medal production, resulting in 37 at the 2010 Games in Vancouver, up from just six in 1988.
The marquee US Alpine team prospered during Marolt’s years with stars like Tommy Moe, Bode Miller, Daron Rahlves, Picabo Street, Julia Mancuso and Lindsey Vonn. Young racers such as Ted Ligety and Mikaela Shiffrin developed before Marolt retired just after the Sochi games in 2014.
It wasn’t just Alpine racers who stood atop the podium. Shaun White became an international star during those years as did riders like Kelly Clark and Ross Powers, who grew up in Vermont. The freestylers joined the Olympic medal parade, too, with aerialists such as Nikki Stone and Eric Bergoust, and mogul skier Jonny Moseley. Nordic combined joined in with a silver medal in the relays and a gold medal by Vermontville’s Billy Demong at Vancouver in 2010.
But notably absent in this parade has been the U.S. cross country team that hadn’t won a medal since Bill Koch took silver in 1976. This was to be their year, especially the women. Actually, 2014 at Sochi was to have been their year. But they didn’t make it.
Racers such as five-time Olympic veteran Kikkan Randall, emerging star Jessie Diggins, Sadie Bjornsen and Sophie Caldwell had won eight medals at three world championships in recent years, and had bonded into a strong group with both international experience and mutual support. All had chances to win individual medals but the event that most pointed to as the place the medal drought would end was the 4x5k relay.
It didn’t happen.
Then it did! Randall and Diggins won the women’s team sprint race, edging Nordic powers Norway and Sweden for the first-ever gold for U.S. cross country racers. This was the pinnacle for these women and the team that Randall has led since her first games in 2002.
The Olympics are full of surprises. This time, Marolt’s “Best in the World” finally includes cross country racers.
Is that important?
Well, in the 40 years since the Steinbrenner Commission released its report, it has been. This is not your local rec soccer team where everyone gets a trophy. This is serious, costly international competition that certainly since the US Hockey team’s “Miracle on Ice” in 1980 and the boycott of the summer games in Moscow a few months later has added a layer of political significance.
Several years ago, biathlete Lowell Bailey from Lake Placid noted that so far as most Americans are concerned, only an Olympic medal can make the public pay attention.
Bailey missed his first two shots at the range in the 20k race and finished a very disappointing 51st in the event that he won last year at the world championships. In a TV interview just after the race, Bailey couldn’t hide his disappointment. He was not there just to participate. He is 36 and this was his fourth and last Olympics. This was his final try for a medal.
So is it right to place so much emphasis on winning medals?
For many of the 240 US athletes who have had no chance at medals, the opportunity to walk in the opening ceremonies and be an Olympian makes the whole experience worth while.
For the younger athletes who worked hard to make the team but didn’t make the podium, there can be next time which is 2022 in Beijing. Certainly Whitehall’s Codie Bascue in bobsled and former Union College student Tucker West in luge, both in their early 20s, are young enough to keep going if they choose.
But for other athletes such as Bailey and teammate Tim Burke, time is up, and there will not be a medal. But no one can take away the experience.
While not earning a medal is a disappointment, the words of 16th century British poet Sir Philip Sidney remain true: “The person who shoots at the mid day sun, though he will never hit his target, will shoot higher than who aims but at a bush.”
I am a fan of the games and the athletes who participate: those who medal and those who don’t.
BIATHLON MAKES FOR BEST TV
As written before, I believe the most exciting television coverage of the games belongs to biathlon. Turns out so does the best commentary. The outspoken Chad Salmela had the best line right after defending Olympic and world champion Martin Fourcade from France missed his last two shots at the range to lose his chance at a medal in the pursuit race: “The unflappable Martin Forcade just got flapped.”
When Fourcade came back to win the 20K (12.5 miles) race in a photo finish by stretching his leg to beat Germany’s Simon Schempp at the wire, Salmela marveled: “If you don’t like biathlon competition after this, you never will.”
The two-time Olympic skating champion (1948 and 1952) and longtime television commentator is now 88. But he still keeps a sharp eye on the Olympics, especially the skating competitors. After US favorite Nathan Chen did poorly in the men’s short program. Button tweeted the message “Beyonce once fell off the stage in a concert and got up and continued to perform. You can do that too.” Chen didn’t win a medal, but his six-quad long program the next day was just as Button had hoped.
Section II racers will be at Bristol Mountain south of Rochester on Monday and Tuesday for the New York State high school Alpine championships. The Nordic championships will be held those days at Gore Mountain. Section champions Brian Beyerbach and Bailey Gengel, both of Queensbury, lead the Nordic competitors, while Melissa Taggert from Shen and Hannah Klingbiel of Schuylerville join Queensbury’s Hunter Montgomery as area Alpine champions in the state field.