Sunday, February 22, 1997
Our Winter Games of discontent

The Cincinnati Enquirer

wheaties box
If not for women's hockey and other new sports, America would have finished far down the medal standings. The Wheaties box featuring the gold-medal women's hockey team will be in stores the first week of March.
(AP photo)
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NAGANO - There is supposed to be more to this than medals. If you buy into the brainwashing, the Olympic Games are not so much about where you finish as what you did along the way.

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Being there. Doing that. Fellowship. Fun. That was the Olympic ideal as envisioned by Baron Pierre de Coubertin when he stood up at the Sorbonne in 1892 and said - and this is a loose translation: ''Hey, let's put on a show.''

''The important thing is not winning,'' the baron believed, ''but taking part.''

More athletes than ever have taken part in these 18th Winter Games, and most of them eventually embraced Coubertin's concept. This is because most of them journeyed to Japan with no real expectation of winning. They came for the parties and to trade pins and, in some melancholy cases, to convert their team wardrobes and keepsakes into hard currency.

Most of them had a marvelous time, provided their rooms were not too near those of the U.S. men's hockey team.

''Everybody should be in the Olympics,'' said Shannon Dunn, an American snowboarder. ''If you have the time of your life, that's the same as winning the gold.''

It was a nice thought, if a bit naive, for in the real world we tend to keep score. The United States sent the largest delegation to Nagano, and its medals count ultimately matched the record 13 set in Lillehammer in 1994. Yet that total is as inflated and deceiving as the offensive output of the Colorado Rockies.

Like major-league baseball, the Olympic movement has embraced expansion as a means to tap new markets. Curling, snowboarding and women's hockey achieved medal status for the first time in Nagano, and additional events will surely be staged in Salt Lake City in 2002.

The net effect has been that America is winning more medals while simultaneously losing market share. Six of the medals the U.S. won in Nagano - four of them gold - were in events that were not part of the Olympic program as recently as 1988. That was the year Olympic officials grew so concerned (desperate?) about America's competitive posture that they charged George Steinbrenner with the responsibility for solutions.

Despite Steinbrenner's considerable expertise at throwing money at problems, his aim has never been all that accurate. Only the Olympic adoption of such Gen X staples as half-pipe snowboarding and moguls skiing have disguised the widespread stagnation among America's older winter sports programs.

The newer sports may be a better gauge of America's winter sports potential because there are actually people who participate in them. Anyone who wonders why the U.S. can't be more competitive in nordic combined should consider whether they can accurately describe what it entails.

That said, efforts to put more people in the pipeline for some of the arcane winter sports have been fairly futile. While team USA won its first-ever luge medals in Nagano, the country continues to draw a blank in biathlon. The U.S. bobsled drought is now in its fifth decade. America's all-time medals count in both cross-country skiing and ski jumping remains at one.

If it weren't for women, the U.S. would have won no medals in the most prominent winter games: alpine skiing, figure skating, hockey and speedskating. (Remember that the next time some college football coach starts whining about how Title IX threatens to undermine his kickoff coverage. If it weren't for the increasing opportunities for women in sports, America's medals count would be dangerously close to Denmark's.)

Does any of this really matter? Maybe to CBS. Maybe to those insecure souls who check the medals charts to see if the world's last surviving superpower is still stronger than the Netherlands. Maybe to those national governing bodies whose funding fluctuates in direct proportion to their medals production.

For the rest of us, America's performance in Nagano is more of a curiosity than a crisis. Few of the winter sports really grip us except once every four years, and fewer of them attract athletes who might pursue more lucrative team sports. (African-Americans, who dominate the talent pool in mainstream sports, are virtually invisible at the Winter Games.)

Rationalizations are readily available. Regrets are too few to mention. If taking part is what really matters at the Winter Olympics, America's got that part down cold.

< Columnist Tim Sullivan is covering the XVIII Winter Olympic Games for the Enquirer.

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