NAGANO, Japan -- The U.S. men's alpine ski team finds itself in a familiar position as the Winter Olympics gets underway.
They've had a disastrous World Cup season and unless lightning strikes in the next two weeks, people will be asking, "What happened to U.S. skiing?"
Four years ago a Sports Illustrated cover story all but buried the team before the 1994 Olympics that resulted in four alpine medals, two for the men and two for the women.
This year four medals seems even more unlikely than it did four years ago. For U.S. skiers to bring home any medals could be considered a triumph.
"It's been a tough couple of months," said A.J. Kitt, one of several veterans on the U.S. team. "But it's nice to get out of Europe on neutral ground.
"It's been a long time since I won a race, so this would be a nice place to turn it around."
That seems to be the prevailing mood on the men's team, which is packed with aging veterans who are hoping to recapture past glory, since recent glory has been so rare.
An early indication of how the Americans might do comes this morning in the men's downhill, where Tommy Moe tries to defend the gold medal he won four years ago.
The top medal contenders in the downhill include the Austrian team, led by Hermann Maier; Norway's Kjetil Andre Aamodt; and Jean-Luc Cretier of France.
The women start with Super G Tuesday.
"We've been making inroads in the last couple of weeks, and I'm cautiously optimistic," said head coach Bill Egan.
About the only thing the Americans have going for them is that this is the Olympics and that seems to bring out the best in them.
"I get a special feeling coming back to the Olympics," said Moe, who also won silver in the super G in 1994, but has done little since. "The Olympics are a huge race for us. It's a chance to make your career and ruin the Europeans' day.
"It's been a long road back this year. But it's the Olympics and anyone can win. So don't count the Americans out."
"This is the big race, and you risk it all" said Kyle Rasmussen. "I don't always feel that way in the World Cup."
The Austrian men have been winning everything in sight on the World Cup circuit this season, so even if the Americans ski well, they will have a difficult time getting a medal.
Alberto Tomba, the ageless flamboyant Italian, will try to rekindle his Olympic fire one more time, but it's doubtful he will be a factor.
His countrywoman, Deborah Compagnoni, is more likely to emerge the star of the slopes. She blasted the competition throughout the recent World Cup season and is regarded, along with Germany's Katja Seizinger, as the woman to beat.
The top American women are another faded star, Picabo Street (downhill silver in Lillehammer), and a bright newcomer, Kristina Koznick, 22, who won a World Cup slalom in Sweden a week ago. It was the first World Cup slalom win for a U.S. woman since 1992.
After cashing in on their Olympic medals, Street and Moe have been slowed by injuries. Street blew up knee ligaments; Moe tore his, then severed a tendon in his thumb on broken glass last year while tending bar.
Street fell in her last race in Europe a week ago, but she was not seriously hurt. She says she's ready to prove to the world she can be at the top of her game again. For that to happen several European skiers will have to take nosedives.
That may be the best the U.S. can hope for.
"When you get to a place like Japan, where everyone's not at home, that levels the playing field," said Kitt. "I know one week in the States is two weeks too long for the Europeans, so probably one week in Japan in three weeks too long for them."
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