It's Jekyll and Hyde for U.S. ski team

Updated: February 23, 2006, 2:06 PM ET
By Carrie Sheinberg | Special to ESPN.com

In the USA house Wednesday night, families gathered and ski racers became sisters, aunts, friends and daughters. They smiled, they celebrated and they allowed themselves to feel the greatness of what they had just done: compete at the Olympic Games.

Sarah Schleper, Resi Stiegler, and Lindsey Kildow, who had filed out of the stadium alongside hordes of spectators, walked a few hundred yards across the street, still clad in their speed suits and racing bibs, and stood in the middle of the club's dance floor signing autographs for kids.

Hadn't they been reading the papers? Didn't they know they were major disappointments to the American medal effort?

Certainly, these athletes were aware that 10th-, 12th- and 14th-place slalom finishes, respectively, hardly make them what the U.S. ski team so boldly claims them to be: "Best in the World."

The team's marketing tagline has taken on a life of its own. And since the beginning of this 20th Olympiad, it has become clear: The marketing blitz has put the athletes in the line of fire. The slogan not only has become the rallying cry for the mighty Austrian team (Hermann Maier sarcastically screamed the slogan from the podium after taking silver in super-G) but also has gotten to the point where journalists feel duped because the U.S. has collected just one medal after eight races.

No question, the easiest target has been Bode Miller, the irreverent and uncooperative World Cup champion. But next on the list is any U.S. athlete who shows up in the finish area without a medal hanging around his or her neck.

How did we get here?

How did we get to the point where athletes, who are ranked at the top of their sport, are seen as losers when they don't win medals? Where journalists are grumbling about yet another failure when the best a racer can muster is seventh? Even TV ratings back home are going down because fifth place just isn't exciting enough to watch; viewers have been promised more.

U.S. Skiing CEO Bill Marolt created the "Best" tagline five years ago in order to raise sponsorship dollars and inspire an organization with a goal. The approach was legitimate. If you don't set high expectations, then high-minded goals are never reached.

But this goal came from an office, and the office and the athletes have never been friends for the same reason that management and unions clash. While Marolt and his marketing team were getting carried away with medal counts and budget projections, the athletes were busy chasing hundredths of seconds in places like Adelboden and Kranjska Gora.

Importantly, their results were ascending to the level Marolt sought. World Cup victories and podium finishes were becoming more and more frequent. In fact, the U.S. was second only to the world-beating Austrians in World Cup points across all disciplines coming into these Games.

Remember, though, that World Cup points are meted out to athletes finishing as low as 30th, a better measure of a team's depth. According to Ski Racing Magazine, if the Olympics were scored like the World Cup, then the first eight races in these 2006 Games are playing out exactly the same -- the Americans are right behind the Austrians and ahead of everybody else.

Still, the reality is the Olympics are not a World Cup race. It is a time for athletes to step up to a different challenge: a one-shot, top-three-take-all format.

This is where the disconnect happens, where expectations in one arena spill over into another. There is a reason that Olympic champions are celebrated, because somehow they stepped up, literally, onto the podium at the one moment when all were watching.

When defining an athlete's career, some will say that one moment is all that matters. For others, what matters is the other 40 races a year, when few are watching.

It is a legitimate question: Why didn't this U.S. team, loaded with talent, perform better? Why has 21-year-old Ted Ligety been the only one to turn in an electrifying, golden performance under the world's watchful eye?

It is a question, at least for the American press, of what "Best in the World" means. Americans are used to Super Bowl winners and losers, to tournament-style elimination rounds of Grand Slam tennis or March Madness. They just don't know what to do with a sixth-place finish once every four years.

On Tuesday night, however, Schleper and Stiegler knew exactly what to do with their 10th- and 12th-place finishes.

"We wish we would have done a little better and [hit the podium] together, but we're psyched," Schleper said. "We decided that we both came back from really intense injuries, and we wanted to have a good time and represent our country in a happy and peaceful way, and we did."

Champions or losers? That's for you to decide.

Carrie Sheinberg, three-time national ski racing champion and top American finisher in the alpine slalom event at the 1994 Olympic Games in Lillehammer, is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.