So far, Games a bust for 'hyped' stars

Updated: February 20, 2006, 8:18 PM ET
By Eric Adelson | ESPN The Magazine

TORINO, Italy -- America likes its Olympic heroes triumphant, grounded and genuine. All three gets an athlete a pedestal and a Wheaties box. Two of three earns a seat at the table and some watercooler talk. None of three, well … do the words "Nagano," "hotel" and "trashed" mean anything to you? Time for a Torino halftime report.

The Disappointments

Notice "hyped" is not on the list of heroic traits. The Olympian who shows up on TV before the torch is lit faces the most difficult path to glory. Somehow, agents and sponsors forget that. Michael Phelps won a ridiculous amount of medals and still left some people wondering why he didn't win more.

But at least Phelps came through in some form. Bode Miller has yet to do that. Those who know skiing are unsurprised so far by his performance, which has included great skiing and a dose of wildness. But those who care about winter sports for two weeks every four years have nearly run the entire trail from intrigued to annoyed to angry to apathetic. Don't care if you win medals, Bode? Well, don't look now, but most of America doesn't, either. Miller has one more shot at the podium. Otherwise it's "Bode, meet Dan and Dave."

Meanwhile, Lindsey Jacobellis found her own strange niche in Olympic lore. She is as stunning on the slopes as she is in her Visa commercial. She shredded her competition -- literally -- at the inaugural Olympic snowboardcross final, and had to make two more jumps to win eternal fawning for herself and her sport. Then, oddly, or hysterically, or pathetically, or all three, she pulled a trick and fell on her rear. Grounded became ground-bound, gold turned to silver, beloved morphed into besmirched -- all in record time. Then, she spoke about how she needed to grab her board for stability in the nonexistent wind. There went "genuine."

At least Jacobellis cost herself only an Olympic championship. U.S. women's hockey coach Ben Smith cost an entire team a chance at gold. His decision to dump Cammi Granato, which still has no real basis in logic, ended up biting him and the U.S. women when they needed a successful penalty shot to avoid losing to an inferior Swedish group. Perhaps Cammi has lost a step, but Janet Jones, Rick Tocchet and half the cops in Jersey would all mortgage their homes on Granato's scoring on a breakaway for a chance at a gold-medal game. And even if Granato doesn't have it anymore (come on, we know she does), how do you sit the Mia Hamm of hockey with an entire nation of little girls deciding which sport to play? Thank you, Mr. Smith, for holding back the women's hockey movement in America. Let's hope 2010 sees your former star player out of the booth and behind the bench. Now that would be a true consolation.

The Surprises

Ben Smith got his degree from Harvard. Joey Cheek got turned down by Harvard. Not a good week for the Crimson. Cheek now has all the ingredients of the American Olympic legend, thanks to his breathless win in the 500-meter speedskating final, followed by his announcement that he would donate his gold-medal money to underprivileged children in Africa. Throw in a goofy smile and some self-effacing humor, and you have the leader in the mettle count. And he's not done skating.

Lindsey Kildow actually burrowed her way into American hearts without winning a thing. America loves a "girl next door," but not as much as a girl next door who flies out of control at 50 mph, nearly breaks her back, then comes back two days later to ski in the Olympic downhill. Kildow could have finished last and won the day.

Ted Ligety, of course, finished first and won the day. While showing absolutely none of the devil-may-care attitude that has become almost a skiing cliché, Ligety came from way behind to win a combined gold medal and single-handedly save the U.S. ski team from ignominy. Props to Sports Illustrated for throwing Ligety on its Olympic preview cover, because most people paid attention only to Miller and downhiller Daron Rahlves. The sight of Ligety on the shoulders of his teammates -- at least the team-first teammates -- will keep us interested not only in Ligety's slalom race, but also in the next two Winter Games. In a sport dominated by those in their late 20s and early 30s, Ligety is 21. Note to Ted: Please ski sober.

And last but not least, the Flying Tomato. Shaun White might have won fans with that nickname alone, but he found a special balance between snowboard daredevil and golly-gee wonderboy when he obliterated the competition in the halfpipe and then seemed overcome at the thought of winning gold for his country. Perfect. Without snowboarding, this might be a bummer of an Olympics for the U.S. But thanks to White and Seth Wescott (snowboardcross), the sport and the team are kickin'.

The Debatables

There are always Olympians who have some of what Americans love, and some of what they don't. This year's games have two athletes in that class.

What do we make of Shani Davis? Triumphant? Absolutely: He became the first black athlete to win individual gold in the Winter Games. Genuine? Perhaps too much so. He blew off the team pursuit event, drawing Chad Hedrick's ire, then he all but snarled at Melissa Stark on NBC after achieving his lifetime dream. Hmm. Guess winning isn't really everything in the Olympics.

Which brings us to the case of Michelle Kwan, who is just the opposite of Davis. Shani just went out, skated and won. Kwan did everything but. She's the darling Shani won't be -- kind, smiling, charming, sweet -- and so she gets a pass for getting to the games without qualifying and then pulling out with an injury. And, unlike Davis, she gets credit for taking one for the team. The win-or-else rules don't seem to apply to Kwan, except, of course, the rules of physics and age.

The Hopefuls

So, who will be the Sarah Hughes of 2006? Nice to think that it could be her sister, Emily, who began the fortnight licking her wounds in the U.S. and now readies herself for Olympic competition. We'd love to see another Hughes gold, followed by a pay-per-view lutz-off in March.

Or it could finally be time for Sasha Cohen, who might be the Americans' best hope for figure skating glory. Then, we could sit back and watch budding Olympic icon Shaun White kneel down on his board and ask for a date.

Then, there's the Stacy Keibler of the Olympics, Tanith Belbin. She speaks like she's on helium, but skates like she's on air, with the soft eyes and porcelain features to match. Belbin and what's-his-face won an ice dancing silver -- the first medal for an American pair in 30 years. Look for her to dump the dude and dance with herself on Skating With Celebrities.

Don't forget Vonetta Flowers, who hopes to make the transition from America's favorite bobsledder to America's favorite mom bobsledder.

And if you need a dark horse for the hero of Week 2, how about Peter Forsberg? The guy is as talented as any hockey player on earth. He is seriously injured, yet competing (what else is new?), and he may be the only guy who can single-handedly beat the Canadians. Watch for him to come off the bench in the third period of the gold-medal game and assist on the winner. Or maybe he'll take the last turn in a gold-medal game shootout and recreate the Stamp Goal. So what if he's not American? The guy plays in Philly.

Eric Adelson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.

Eric Adelson | email

ESPN The Magazine
Eric Adelson was a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.