2002: Gold Rush

The following is an excerpt from an article published in Sports Illustrated on March 4, 2002:

Every one kept looking for someone to blame. The Russians offered conspiracy theories involving the NHL and corporate interests; the South Koreans offered up accusations of incompetent judging; the Canadians first painted themselves the victims of vote-swapping and then, as the hockey tournament wound to a close, offered up the novel idea that the world hates Canadians. Boycotts were threatened, temperatures rose, yet apart from all the fiery complaints lay the not-so-subtle subtext of the 2002 Winter Olympics: The U.S. won medal after surprise medal in Salt Lake City—10 gold and 34 overall, more winter medals than it had won before (13 in 1994 and ’98), in fact—and made the rest of the world look bad. Who’s responsible?

So many, it seems, had a hand in it. Blame New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, who chaired the U.S. Olympic Committee commission that in 1989 recommended a massive infusion of money and support for various winter sports, and the USOC, which adopted that recommendation, provided millions over the following decade plus $40 million over the last four years just in preparation for the Salt Lake City Games. Blame the International Olympic Committee, which, in its quest to skew younger and more female, admitted America-friendly sports like aerial skiing in ’94 and snowboarding and women’s hockey in ’98. Blame U.S. winter sports federations, which hired superior coaches from overseas and recruited a rainbow coalition of talented athletes from summer sports and Sun Belt states.

Blame winter sports boosters like former U.S. Olympic luger Bonny Warner, who not only pushed to get skeleton and women’s bobsled admitted to this year’s Games—events that yielded three gold and one silver medal for America—but also lured Alabama native Vonetta Flowers from the running track to the bobsled run and trained her. In Salt Lake City, Flowers, the brakeman for driver Jill Bakken, became the first African-American to win Winter Olympic gold. “My goal was to make the Summer Olympics,” said Flowers, 28, a former long jumper and sprinter, “but God had a different plan for me.”

A different plan is exactly what the USOC needed to turn the U.S. into a Winter Games powerhouse. After American athletes won a paltry six medals at the 1988 Olympics—causing Steinbrenner, a former USOC vice president, to erupt at the team’s futility—U.S. Olympic officials realized that they had to discard conventional wisdom and their reliance on the limited talent pool found in the northern and mountain states. They started thinking and looking outside the box. Flowers, who responded to a bobsled flyer at the 2000 U.S. track and field trials in Sacramento, wasn’t the only Southerner competing in the bobsled in Salt Lake City. Todd Hays, a Texas-born former linebacker for Tulsa, came to the sport after his brother saw a recruiting ad on TV. He drove his four-man sled to a silver medal last week, ending a 46-year U.S. medal drought in men’s races. In the sled with him was brake-man Garrett Hines, an African-American former Southern Illinois tailback raised in Tennessee.

Indeed, the fortnight in Salt Lake City revealed that the Winter Olympics had undergone a face-lift—one that not only removed wrinkles but also added some much needed color. Speed skaters Derek Parra of San Bernardino, Calif., and Jennifer Rodriguez of Miami became the first Mexican-American and Cuban-American, respectively, to win a medal at a Winter Games, and Apolo Ohno’s gold and silver medals in short-track speed skating made him the most decorated Japanese-American Winter Olympian.

Athletes benefited from the USOC’s 20-year-old jobs program, under which Olympic sponsor Home Depot has employed 280 Summer and Winter Games prospects at stores across the country. ( Allstate, Anheuser-Busch and other companies have participated in the program.) Parra worked 20 hours a week in the flooring department at a Home Depot in West Valley City, Utah. His hours were flexible, he received full benefits, and he was paid as if he worked 40 hours. “I got Employee of the Month three times,” he says. “I enjoyed working. It helped me to get away from skating.” All told, the jobs program helped support 14 U.S. athletes who competed in Salt Lake City, including bobsledder Hines, women’s skeleton winner Tristan Gale and three other medalists.

The USOC saw in the sledding events a unique opportunity to boost the American medal count. In January 1999,10 months before skeleton and women’s bobsled were admitted to the Games, the committee gambled that those would be included at Salt Lake City and poured more than $250,000 of support into them. “That one year made the difference,” says Warner, a member of the Athletes’ Advisory Council. “The Germans [a traditional power in sledding events] were caught off-guard. Their federation didn’t fund their women’s bobsled program until 2001, and it was the same for skeleton. We got a huge jump.” Meanwhile, thanks to sponsor money and funds put out by NASCAR driver Geoff Bodine, the U.S. men’s bobsledders took to the track in their fastest sleds ever, designed by Chassis Dynamics in collaboration with Bodine. Perhaps equally important, the U.S. sledding base of operations was shifted from Lake Placid, N.Y., to the new run in Park City. Training was geared not to the European schedule of competition, but to only this run, these 17 days.

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