Commentary

So, now what for U.S. Olympic team?

Updated: March 1, 2010, 9:49 PM ET
By Bonnie D. Ford | ESPN.com

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- The U.S. Olympic team cut a wide swath through these Winter Games. It's hard to compare between eras because so many new sports have been added to the menu in the past couple of decades, but by any measure, the overall record of 37 medals set by the United States here is impressive.

American athletes, men and women, medaled in traditional sports and X sports, sports in which they had a track record of success and sports in which they'd never medaled before, in team and individual events. Established stars lived up to their reputations, and young athletes elbowed their elders aside to get on the podium.

[+] EnlargeBilly Demong
Frank Fife/Getty ImagesThere were stars such as Lindsey Vonn who shined in 2010, and then there were athletes who broke through in lesser-known sports after years of hard work such as Billy Demong in the Nordic combined.

Twelve years after the U.S. team labored to hit double digits in the medal count in Nagano, Japan, the country has become a Winter Games behemoth, racking up 96 in the past three editions of the Olympics -- two of which were held in North America. And all this despite turnover and turmoil at the top levels of the U.S. Olympic Committee, not to mention a troubled economy that cut into funding for many athletes and sports.

So, now what? It's a sports truism that getting to the top is often easier than staying there. And four years hence, the Winter Games will be in Sochi, Russia, a Black Sea resort whose only resemblance to Vancouver is its temperate weather. (A high of 56 degrees was expected Monday.) Sochi will build all of its venues from scratch, and is promising, with the customary can-do optimism of any Olympic city, to finish them in time to host world-class events at least two years before the Games.

Whether or not that comes to pass, Sochi won't have the cozy next-door-neighbor feel Vancouver did. It's not a short-hop flight away, it's not a stop on the World Cup circuit, and it's in a region best characterized by the catch-all term "troubled" near the border of the Republic of Georgia. That country's Olympic Committee, still mourning the death of its young luge athlete, Nodar Kumaritashvili, on the same day these Games got under way, issued a somber news release Saturday asking journalists not to forget the underlying political turmoil there or the environmental consequences of carving into forests and mountainsides to create a stage for the world's biggest multisport festival.

It's probably unreasonable to expect the 2014 U.S. team to surpass the competitive mark it set here. There's just too much talent in too many places. The Olympic Games have morphed from a gathering of amateurs into a quadrennial convention of career athletes, and there are more events that can be practiced without the benefit of towering mountains. The balance of power among nations has slowly shifted from the European regulars to some permanent party crashers from other continents.

South Korea also had its best Winter Olympic showing (14 medals), and China equaled its 2006 performance (11). Meanwhile, the Austrian men's Alpine ski team was completely shut out, and Russia failed to win figure skating gold for the first time in 50 years. The Old World countries that have owned the hunter-gatherer Nordic events forever had to move over to make room for guys from Colorado and upstate New York. It's not quite international parity, but it's getting closer.

Billy Demong, the kid from Lake Placid who won the first Nordic combined gold for the United States, spoke to that evolution at a USOC news conference Saturday.

"I think in Nagano, we felt like we were a small country at the Olympic Games," he said. "There were teams that expected to medal, but as a whole team, we felt kind of like one of the outsiders at the Winter Olympics. And now we're here to win. There's a lot of guys and girls who feel very comfortable in their sports, amongst their competitors, and entitled to doing their best and winning."

Later, Demong shot down the notion that American athletes are somehow endowed with a psychological advantage, describing himself as "somebody who has toiled away here for a long time and talked myself off the podium a bunch of times, been scared to win and been scared to lose.

"We fully knew coming into these Games that we could do this, and kind of earned it before we got here," added Demong, who landed on 10 World Cup podiums last season. "I have to say I think American athletes are just like anybody else. We work real hard for a real long time to earn the victories."

Will Sochi bring continued high achievement, or is the U.S. team due for a rebuilding cycle? Some of that will depend on money. The USOC allocated $55 million to winter sports development and sports-science research during the past four years, but one of the most important private-sector underpinnings, the Home Depot Olympic Jobs Opportunities program, was discontinued a year ago after the economy crashed and burned.

"A lot of people were heartbroken when that went away," said Demong's fiancée, Katie Koczynski, a former member of the U.S. skeleton team. "People were feeding their families with that."

The Home Depot program provided full-time pay and benefits -- including health care and a 401K -- for athletes who were working part-time and leaving for weeks on end to train and compete. Koczynski worked as a cashier, "and then I was in paint," she said. "It was amazing -- you'd say, 'I'm going away for two months,' and they'd say, 'Bye! See you when you get back!'"

The USOC is trying to jump-start another similar program through a partnership with human resources company Adecco, but ultimately it may be that -- like many of us -- the winter sports federations will have to learn to do more with less or try to create smaller jobs programs targeted at the athletes who need them most.

In the short term, the U.S. team has done the most valuable thing of all for winter sports development -- win. There's nothing like a medals ceremony to make a talented kid watching on television turn to his or her parents and say, "I want to do that." (Not to mention the fact that corporate sponsors with limited budgets like winners, too.) We've heard that hackneyed story so many times that we may be numb to it, but it is familiar because it's real.

The athletes who struck it rich here -- the speedskaters who grew up with single parents in Seattle and Chicago, the hockey player who got herself to Harvard, the girl from Minnesota who decided she could conquer mountains -- had to do a lot of climbing on their own. Like it or not, that's the American model and always has been. There may be dry spells for the United States in future Olympics, but there's always a new geyser bubbling somewhere, just waiting to burst through.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.

Bonnie D. Ford

Enterprise and Olympic Sports
Bonnie D. Ford is a senior writer for ESPN.com.