Kovacevic: It's getting dark out for the U.S.
By Dejan Kovacevic
Published: Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014, 7:24 p.m.
SOCHI, Russia — OK, now it's official: Something's really wrong with the U.S. Olympic effort here.
It's not just that the Americans have blown once-in-a-generation opportunities to build legends, though they certainly have. Shani Davis failed to medal in 1,000-meter speedskating Wednesday, and he did so the night after Shaun White failed to medal in the halfpipe. Each could have become the first U.S. male to take gold in the same winter event three times. Each was competing in his signature event. Each had a healthy run-up.
Each blew it.
And it's not just that they blew it. They absolutely bombed. Davis was pretty much lapped by the field and finished eighth. White nearly cracked his board in half after a clumsy twist and finished fourth.
And it's not just that they bombed because they've had high-profile company. Bode Miller dominated his downhill trials, but he crashed through a flag when it counted and finished eighth. Julia Mancuso, the Americans' best clutch skier of either gender, was favored in her downhill Wednesday, as well. Too much air under a jump, and she finished eighth.
Hey, what is it with finishing eighth, anyway?
Look, I don't want to be that guy who slams the Olympic collective after a handful of days. Fact is, a dozen days remain, and good things — possibly great things — could still happen.
But man, it's hard to overlook what could have happened. As Mancuso put it after her flop, “I feel like I want to hit the reset button.”
The U.S. has three gold medals, all in the first-time sport of freestyle snowboarding. Sorry, but with all due respect to White for having essentially hoisted the X Games stuff to prominence on his hipster shoulders, that's hardly Olympic glory.
The most noteworthy achievement thus far has been Erin Hamlin's bronze in singles luge, the first medal in that discipline for any American. That's no knock. It's wonderful. But celebrating bronze above all is for Tajikistan or Togo, not the biggest, baddest, best-funded operation on the planet.
The U.S. has nine overall medals to rank fifth in those standings. And I know that only because I checked online. One Russian network hilariously aired a medals table that showed only the top three nations, then made a special listing of Russia's, um, nine.
That's life when you're looking way up at Norway.
This isn't good enough.
The U.S. Olympic Committee wisely hedged any pre-Games bragging, but all those ultra-serious, spiffy-suited who addressed us here a week ago with “high expectations,” per CEO Scott Blackmun, had to have been expecting more.
“Whenever we start predicting medals, we get way off track,” Blackmun said in a statement late Wednesday. “Our job is to make sure the athletes are prepared. What we can control is: Are they ready to compete? I can unequivocally say we're ready to compete. And don't forget, there's almost two full weeks left.”
In fairness, the Americans flew into Sochi without three of their biggest names: Lindsey Vonn, queen of the downhill and Vogue covers, might have been the most famous face here. Not to mention a gold favorite.
Same with Evan Lysacek, who took figure skating gold in Vancouver. And Apolo Anton Ohno, little big man of the short track. But Vonn and Lysacek were injured, and Ohno was smart enough to call it quits at the right time.
Can't help but wonder if White and Davis shouldn't have done the same.
I was perched in the press area for Davis' event Wednesday and, just like Vancouver, anticipated witnessing something truly special. Judging by the crowd's buzz as Davis skated up to the line, I wasn't alone. Even those relentlessly noisy Dutch locked in, the chance to see history momentarily overshadowing their rooting interest.
But rather than making history, Davis, 31, looked like he was history.
And the worst part: He didn't start badly or slip or slide. He just got beat. Basically admitted as much, too.
“It was nothing physical that went wrong,” Davis would say. “I just simply didn't have the speed and the lap, and that's something that I've always had over my competitors.”
Give the man the highest of marks for candor. Not many athletes ever come to grips with that, much less right on the scene.
So what's next?
That's what really matters, isn't it, for the rest of these Olympics and beyond.
We can live with the disappointment of fallen or aging idols, especially when they've been brilliant as long as White, Davis and others have. We can respect it, too, when they concede with the class both displayed this week. Ultimately, though, the head swivels.
There isn't much ahead. Know that right now. If there were, we wouldn't be having this discussion.
But maybe it's Mikaela Shiffrin. She's only 18, and she'll debut on the giant slalom Tuesday. Favored for gold, she'd be the youngest American to achieve that in alpine skiing.
Maybe it's Gracie Gold. She's 18, as well, and she'll perform on figure skating's greatest stage against South Korea's brilliant Yuna Kim and Russia's 15-year-old sensation Julia Lipnitskaia. It would be an upset, but Gold's gifted enough.
Or, hey, maybe it'll all just come down to the pucks. Let's not kid anyone: If the U.S. takes hockey gold on Russian soil, all the rest will seem like a bad dream.
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