SALT LAKE CITY - It was in 1988, when the United States' medal total in the Calgary Olympic Games could be counted on two hands with two fingers unused, that an embarrassed U.S. Olympic Committee vowed that it would never happen again.
"Americans like to win; it's a habit we have," said Sandy Baldwin, president of the USOC."But after Calgary we asked, 'What on earth is wrong?' "
A special commission headed by New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner proposed sweeping changes in the way America prepares its Olympic athletes. Among them, not surprisingly, were an increased commitment of money and resources to athletes, coaches and training facilities.
Fourteen years later, as the world watched the Olympic Torch extinguished over the Salt Lake City Games, the United States celebrated its most productive Winter Olympics performance ever, as well as what International Olympics Committee president Jacques Rogge called "these exceptional Salt Lake City Games."
When the Games ended Sunday after a fiercely contested hockey game - with Canada winning a long-awaited gold medal with a 5-2 victory over the United States - and yet another doping scandal that resulted in the disqualifiction of two Russian cross country skiers, the United States had amassed a record 34 medals: 10 gold, 13 silver and 11 bronze. Only Germany, with 35 medals, had more. Only Germany and Norway had more gold medals, 12 and 11, respectively, than did the host Americans.
By way of comparison, the U.S. won only 35 medals total in each of the previous three Winter Olympiads.
"I feel like a proud mother today," Baldwin said Sunday.
"We worked on this a long time; this is not serendipity. This comes from the conviction of our organization that you absolutely have to support athletes, coaches, sports medicine and build a team.
"I'm exhausted today," Baldwin added, "but I hate to see this beautiful dream end."
In passing the previous Olympic record of 29 medals at any one Winter Games, the United States called on athletes who toiled in relative obscurity before seizing their moment in the international spotlight.
"There's an old saying that you are a reflection of the company you keep," said speed skater Derek Parra, who helped get the American snowball rolling with a surprising silver medal finish in the 5,000 meters on Day 2. "I think our success is a reflection on the people who've been working around us for the past several years.
"From the day when I walked into the Opening Ceremonies with the World Trade Center flag until tonight's closing ceremony, this has been an outstanding event," said Parra, who later won gold in the 1,500 meters. "The fans have been great, the volunteers, the military who kept things safe. It's been one of the greatest times of my life."
The turnaround from Calgary was dramatic. But the upgrade from even the 1998 Nagano games, when America won only 13 medals, was pronounced.
The USOC set a goal of 20 medals, and American athletes had that by the halfway point. Led by a speed skating group that won eight medals (three gold) and a snowboarding team that swept the uniquely American halfpipe competition, the U.S. established itself as a potential power in Winter Games traditionally dominated by Europeans.
Part of that success comes from a $40 million commitment the USOC made to eight different sports since the 1998-99 winter sports season. The greatest part of that money came from corporate sponsorships that Lloyd Ward, the USOC's chief executive officer, says must continue to expand if the Salt Lake City results are to be more than a freak occurance.
"We continue to find a tremendous amount of support for the future of our Olympic movement," Ward said. "The interest in our athletes transcends the fact that this competition was held on American soil."
But there was no question, either, that participation on American soil before American fans was inspiring to athletes who seldom here the cheers of a home crowd.
"Hearing that 'U-S-A, U-S-A' chant when you're tiring in a race is absolutely energizing," Parra said. "I think that showed the kind of support this nation has for its athletes. It was an exclamation mark, a way of saying, 'We're the U.S.; we're here to play."'
Earning equally high marks was the Salt Lake Organizing Committee, which saw seven years of work culminate Sunday night in the gala international party conducted after the Closing Ceremonies at the University of Utah.
Born amid a a bribery scandal and threatened by the post-Sept. 11 fear of international terrorism, the Salt Lake City Games nonetheless emerged as America's response to the 1996 Atlanta Summer Games that were not well received.
"I so proud that the Salt Lake people were able to put America's best foot forward," Baldwin said. "We know that people thought the Atlanta Games were not as gracious as they should have been, or were too commercial. But the image we've seen here has everyone from around the world leaving here with good feelings about the United States and our good manners. I think this greatly strengthens our chances of getting Games back here in 2012."
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