The best American Olympic team ever?

Scenes from the Olympics.
Feb. 10 2006 11:42 AM

The Best American Olympic Team Ever?

Yeah, right.

Bode Miller. Click image to expand.
Bode Miller

In one of NBC's ads for the Winter Olympics, American skiers, snowboarders, and skaters soar and twirl while their first names flash across the screen. Bode. Michelle. Apolo. "Four years ago, America's best showed they were the best in the world," brags the voice-over. "Get ready, Torino, for the best American team ever."

Since NBC isn't known for Olympic-year objectivity, I decided to check it out. Will this be the best American team ever?

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The short answer: No. A look at Winter Olympics history reveals that American success in the Games depends on four conditions, none of which have been satisfied in Turin. Herein, the keys to past U.S. victories, and some quick fixes that should help the Americans win a few more medals.

Host the Games on American soil.
In the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City, Americans won 34 of the 234 medals awarded—roughly 14.5 percent. But that wasn't the best American performance ever. In 1932, when the Games were in Lake Placid, N.Y., Americans won 12 of the 42 medals—a whopping 28.5 percent. According to CBS Sportsline's medal tallies, since the Winter Games began in 1924, American athletes have won 14.4 percent of the medals when competing stateside. When the Olympics are in another country, Americans have won a piddling 7.8 percent.

America's best hope this time around is for the U.S. Olympic Committee to revive the sprit of Salt Lake City. Nothing says winter in Utah like a pair of Mormon underwear, which should be the official mandatory undergarments of the U.S. Olympic team. And at the training table, replace the food with the kind of Italian vittles you can get in Utah. Say hello to your newest official sponsors: Chef Boyardee and the Olive Garden.

Bend the rules.
America's success at Lake Placid in 1932 didn't just depend on the home crowds. There was also some brilliant bureaucratic diddling. According to The Complete Book of the Winter Olympics, American officials enraged the Europeans by changing the speed-skating rules. At the last minute, the unsportsmanlike hosts scrapped the traditional paired format of European racing in favor of group heats and eliminations. As a result, the Americans won five speed skating medals. That's four more than they won at the previous Olympics, and four more than they would win at the subsequent Games. Call it cheating or call it a flair for rule-making. Either way, it's a strong model for American ascendancy.

Thanks to the figure-skating brouhaha in Salt Lake City, this year's Olympics will roll out a new multivariable judging system, which involves 12 judges, a three-person technical panel, and video replay. After each performance, the judges' marks will be sifted and sorted by a computer. This is our best opportunity for gaming the system. Americans invented the Internet. Surely we can hack into a dainty little figure-skating computer. Since we already bent the rules to get Michelle Kwan onto this year's team, we may as well bend the rules to get her the gold medal. If any problems arise, call Tonya Harding.

Keep out the Russians.
In 1952, despite having to compete in Norway, the Americans corralled 16.4 percent of the medals. That's the highest percentage that any U.S. team has ever won abroad. The key? The Soviets couldn't be bothered to attend.

In 1956, the USSR got over their Communist suspicions of the Games—not to mention the mathematical incompatibility of the four-year Olympic schedule and Five Year Plans. The Soviets promptly gobbled up the most medals of any nation, sending the U.S. team into a nearly 50-year swoon.

At Salt Lake City, the Russians momentarily got into a tizzy about some alleged hometown favoritism and threatened to boycott the games. Alas, it didn't come to pass. The possibility of excluding the world's pale-faced, potato-distilling people from future Games seems unlikely. But other opportunities abound. Every four years, medals go to athletes from liberal, humorless European nations: Norway, Sweden, Finland, Austria. Serendipitously, these happen to be the same nations that our political leaders are best qualified to offend. There's no reason why we couldn't replace current USOC Chair Peter Ueberroth with, say, John Bolton. Boycotts would be sure to follow.

Invent sports that no one else cares about.
America's historic medal haul in 2002 was, in large part, the payoff for the prolonged diluting of the traditional European sports. Of the United States' 34 medals in Salt Lake City, 16 came in events that didn't exist at the 1988 Olympics. Women's hockey, freestyle skiing, men's halfpipe—our best sports are all recent additions.

This year, in Turin, only one sport, something called "snowboard cross," will make its debut. Pathetic. Newfangled pseudo-sports are our lifeblood. What's the best way to counterbalance the European's stranglehold on the Nordic combined? Create an Americanized biathlon that combines saucer-sledding and backyard wrestling. Other possibilities: cross-country snowmobile, the downhill mattress, and short-track Zamboni.

Felix Gillette is a reporter for the Columbia Journalism Review's CJR Daily.

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