SOCHI, RUSSIA – Ted Ligety didn’t try to hide behind any excuses Friday when he became the latest high-profile U.S. athlete to bomb at the Sochi Olympics. “To put it simply, I choked,’’ said Ligety, the defending world champion in Alpine skiing’s super combined event. “It’s just a bummer.”
Or, as the snowboarders on the halfpipe might say, epic fail. Through the first nine days of the Winter Games, the megastars of the U.S. team have wilted under the spotlight on the world’s biggest sporting stage. But athletes in the newer sports on the Olympic program, particularly the extreme sports, have kept their country in the thick of the medals race.
The Americans have won 16 medals in Sochi with seven days remaining in the Winter Games, putting them one behind The Netherlands and tying them for second place in the total count with host nation Russia. Their four gold medals tie them for fifth in that category.
They have done it without contributions from marquee names such as snowboarder Shaun White, speedskater Shani Davis and cross-country skier Kikkan Randall, all of whom have flopped under the Olympic pressure — some of them multiple times — and have delivered neither medals nor the kind of performances that made them household names.
But sports that are new to the Olympics this year have raked in six medals for the Americans, including their most dominant performance thus far: a sweep of the podium in men’s slopestyle skiing, only the third 1-2-3 performance in U.S. history. The events that NBC host Bob Costas derided as “Jackass’’ sports — referring to the TV show featuring mindless and dangerous stunts — are saving the Americans’ pride. And that, the extreme athletes say, is just insane.
“For the U.S., hopefully people are stoked on our sport because we just won a bunch of medals,” said Gus Kenworthy, silver medalist in slopestyle skiing. “The Olympics are the pinnacle event, the highest level of competition in any sport.
“Our sport is young and cool. We’re bringing this new breath of life into the Olympics, and they’re helping our sport by showcasing it to the world. It’s kind of a cool dynamic.”
Only four of the U.S. medals have come in events with a long Winter Games pedigree. None of those is gold, and three are bronze, from Julia Mancuso (women’s Alpine skiing super combined), Bode Miller (men’s super-G) and Erin Hamlin (women’s luge). Another bronze came in team figure skating, a new discipline in a traditional sport.
X Games beginnings
The majority have been won in events that migrated from the X Games, including the six in men’s and women’s ski and snowboard slopestyle. The Americans are particularly deep in these sports, many of which were created on its mountains.
In addition to the sweep in men’s slopestyle skiing, the United States has earned medals in women’s slopestyle skiing (silver), men’s slopestyle snowboarding (gold) and women’s slopestyle snowboarding (gold), all of which are making their Olympic debut in Sochi. Other podium finishes have come in women’s snowboard halfpipe (gold and bronze), women’s skeleton (silver), men’s skeleton (bronze) and women’s moguls (bronze), all sports that have been on the Olympic program since 1992.
The U.S. Olympic Committee is adept at analyzing medal potential in various sports, then funneling funding and support to those most likely to produce results. It had high expectations for the extreme sports, but it also anticipated better showings from some of the more traditional events.
In response to a question about the extreme sports propping up the medal count, Alan Ashley, chief of sport performance for the U.S. Olympic Committee, said Friday: “We’re incredibly proud of every member of Team USA and obviously really happy for those that have been successful. … These have been great Games.’’
The U.S. delegation includes 230 athletes — the most ever for one country at a Winter Games — and high hopes for a large, deep team. The Americans have not always done well at Olympics that are far from home, but Ashley said the American athletes’ impressive international résumé leading up to Sochi was a good omen.
The alpine ski team was coming off one of its best seasons ever, with 18 World Cup victories and four gold medals at the world championships. The women’s cross-country team had done the same, winning its first-ever gold medal at a world championship.
Ashley declined before the Games to predict how many medals the United States would win. He was confident it would compare to the tally at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, where the Americans won 37 medals — its highest Winter Games total in history — and nine golds. There were only a handful of sports in Sochi in which the United States was not seen as a medal contender.
Injuries hurt prospects
The Americans’ medal hopes were hurt in some sports by injuries to stars. Minnesota native Lindsey Vonn reinjured her surgically repaired knee late lst year and was unable to defend her Olympic gold medal in downhill. Sarah Hendrickson, the 2013 world champion in women’s ski jumping, tore a knee ligament last August and had not competed this season until the Olympics. A hip injury sidelined Evan Lysacek, the 2010 Olympic gold medalist in men’s figure skating.
Other athletes have simply not come through, including several with a chance to make history.
White, bidding to win his third consecutive gold in the halfpipe, fell on his first run and did not medal.
Randall, favored to bring the United States its first Olympic medal in women’s cross-country skiing, faded badly in both the freestyle sprint and the first leg of the 4x5-kilometer relay.
And Davis, expected to become the first male speedskater to win the same event in three consecutive Olympics, is part of a shocking fall by a U.S. speedskating team that has not finished higher than seventh in any of the eight events contested so far.
That sport has a long tradition of Olympic success, with U.S. skaters bringing home 29 gold medals and 67 overall — the most of any Winter Olympic sport. The team’s new bodysuits and its preparation for Sochi both have come under scrutiny as speedskating officials search for answers.
Concerns about potential flaws in the suit’s design caused U.S. Speedskating to announce Friday that its athletes will no longer wear the suits. U.S. coach Kip Carpenter initially rejected the notion that the suits were responsible for his team’s poor showing.
“A skater does not lose a second [in the 1,000 meters] because of a skin suit,’’ he said. “Anyone who thinks that does not know speedskating. In my opinion, the Dutch are just sitting deeper and pushing harder. They are just skating better than us.’’
While the traditional sports struggle to find their footing, the newcomers appreciate the history they are making. The sweep in men’s slopestyle by Joss Christensen, Kenworthy and Nick Goepper matches a feat accomplished by Americans in men’s figure skating (1956) and men’s snowboard halfpipe (2002).
“The contribution that slopestyle is making to the medal count is incredible,’’ said Goepper, who won bronze. “More than anything, it’s showcasing to the Olympic community and to the rest of the world how competitive, how cool and how overall awesome slopestyle is. We’ll be a highlight event for many Olympic Games to come.’’