Five-ring Circus

Four Theories on Why the United States Is No Longer Having a Crummy Winter Olympics

GANGNEUNG, SOUTH KOREA - United States snowboard gold medalist Jamie Anderson poses for a selfie with some members of the United States women's hockey team and their gold medals on the Today Show Set on February 22, 2018 in Gangneung, South Korea.
United States snowboard gold medalist Jamie Anderson poses for a selfie with some members of the United States women’s hockey team and their gold medals on the Today Show Set on February 22, 2018 in Gangneung, South Korea. Marianna Massey/Getty Images

After an underwhelming start to the 2018 Winter Olympics, in which the United States won a paltry 13 medals in the games’ first 12 days, Team USA finally decided to stop moping around the Olympic Village and get back to the business of winning. The Americans have been on a tear in the waning days of these Pyeongchang Games, winning nine medals in two days to bring their medal count up to a solid 21, with eight of those gold. While the United States still trails Norway and Canada, which as of this writing have won 37 and 27 medals respectively, the U.S. has blown past France (15 medals) and the Netherlands (18) and are within striking distance of the third-place German squad, which has currently won 26 medals. The USA is back, baby!

Two days ago, I wrote a piece headlined “Four Theories on Why the United States Is Having Such a Crummy Winter Olympics.” Like poor Evgenia Medvedeva, that story is no longer relevant.  Today, inspired by the pluck of the men and women in red, white, and blue, I’m going to adjust my free skate mid-program and offer four theories about why America is no longer having such a crummy Winter Olympics.

The U.S. finally got some surprise winners. Earlier in the games, several of Team USA’s leading contenders didn’t perform up to expectations. Projected figure-skating medalist Nathan Chen fell in his short program and finished in fifth place. Medal favorites like Lindsey Jacobellis and Mikaela Shiffrin finished off the podium in their signature events, displaced by less-heralded contenders. Well, things have changed, and the USA has started to win some events it does not typically win, like cross-country skiing and women’s hockey. Moreover, many of these unexpected victories have been beautiful sports experiences. The gold medals in cross-country and hockey were so thrilling that, by all rights, they should count for five medals each. Hooray, we’re in second place now!

The schedule evened out. These Winter Olympics frontloaded lots of events at which the United States has typically stunk and Norway has typically ruled, like cross-country skiing and ski jumping, a quirk that added to the impression that Team USA was underachieving. This week, the USA finally had a chance to shine in some events the Norwegians aren’t good at, like freestyle skiing and bobsledding. America has won 25 freestyle skiing medals at the Winter Olympics—first place!—whereas Norway has only won nine. Guess how many bobsled medals the USA has won over the years? 24! How about Norway? A big, fat zero.

Momentum might be a thing. The statheads of the world will tell you momentum probably isn’t real and independent outcomes across disparate sports are not actually related. To this, I say: But what if they do exist and are related? The American athletes are all living together in the Olympic Village, and it’s not crazy to think Team USA’s heretofore lackluster performance may have affected the athletes’ collective mood. Conversely, the recent spate of medals may have raised their spirits and bolstered their enthusiasm. Is winning infectious? I’m not a doctor, but I can confidently say the answer is yes. (Note: I am not confident the answer is yes.)

Some American Olympians realized it was now or never. Earlier this week I wrote that the American squad didn’t seem to have very many athletes who were in their primes—that the team was full of relatively old and very young Olympians. In the last few days, the veterans have come through for the USA, from Lindsey Vonn gutting out a bronze medal in the women’s downhill skiing event to five-time Olympian Kikkan Randall pacing younger teammate Jessie Diggins in their unexpected cross-country skiing team sprint gold to to the American men’s curling team positioning itself to play for gold on Saturday. Perhaps they realized Pyeongchang was going to be their last shot at an Olympic medal and decided to go all out in their bids to get one. Or perhaps I’m trying to impose an ex-post-facto narrative on a series of random outcomes. To that I say: USA! USA! USA!

Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the Pyeongchang Olympics.

In Praise of the Women of U.S. Hockey, Who Really Hate Canada and Really Deserved a Gold Medal

The United States’ Thrilling Cross-Country-Skiing Gold Was Everything Great About Sports

Somebody Needs to Make a Movie About John Shuster and His Ragtag Team of Curling Rejects