NAGANO, Japan - As the 1998 Winter Olympics winds down with its final events today, the United States team can look back at a fairly successful Games.
The team won a record-tying number of medals (13), brought in some new, young stars and had a number of top 10 finishers as the team builds for the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City.
There were some remarkable triumphs, like the gold medal for the women's hockey team in the first Olympic tournament for women. U.S. women took gold and silver in the singles figure skating for the first time since 1956. And freestyle skiers took three of a possible four gold medals.
But there were problems. After the United States won just six medals in the 1988 Olympics there was an effort to revamp the U.S. Olympic program, to make the country more competitive in the Winter Games. So with 13 medals it would appear that effort was successful.
Actually most of the increased medals come from Olympic inflation, adding new sports to the schedule. In 1998 the United States earned only seven medals from the sports that were in the 1988 games, a net increase of one.
This year's medals included three in freestyle skiing, one in women's hockey and two in snowboard, none of which were in the Olympics 10 years ago.
One of the new sports, snowboarding, was expected to add even more medals to the U.S. total, but they won none in the snowboard giant slalom, and only two bronzes in the halfpipe.
Another disappointment this year was men's hockey, where an infusion of National Hockey League stars was supposed to give the United States its best shot at a medal since 1980. The U.S. team lost three of its four games and didn't come close to a medal. Medals also were hoped for in bobsled and short-track speed skating. Men's figure skating as well as pairs and ice dancing also failed to perform up to expectations.
On the plus side a whole crop of new stars entered the Olympic arena, from gold medal moguls skier Jonny Moseley to the women's hockey team to Tara Lipinski and Michelle Kwan in figure skating. Chris Witty won the only two speed skating medals, but a young team set several personal bests and American records.
K.C. Boutiette broke three U.S. records although he did not medal. He and Witty should lead a strong team to Salt Lake.
The luge team finally broke through for its first medals in Olympic history, a silver and a bronze in doubles. And the women's curling team almost won a medal in their first Olympic tournament.
Several national governing bodies have set up development programs to build strong teams in the coming years. That is starting to pay off in such sports as cross-country skiing and biathlon, although the United States continues to lag behind in Nordic sports.
It's too early to even guess what might happen in 2002, but there certainly will be some new faces to mix with the returning veterans. There will be a concentrated effort to put forth the best possible team when the Olympics return to American soil.
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