Five-ring Circus

Four Theories on Why the United States Is Having Such a Crummy Winter Olympics

Photo from inside the goal.
USA’s Ryan Zapolski fails to save a goal in the men’s quarterfinal ice hockey match between Czech Republic and the USA during the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games at the Gangneung Hockey Centre in Gangneung on Wednesday. AFP/Getty Images

Going strictly by medal count, the United States has not had a good Olympics. As of Wednesday morning Eastern time, Norway is at the top of the medal table with a combined 30 golds, silvers, and bronzes. Team USA, by comparison, has won just 13 medals in Pyeongchang. Thirteen is a much smaller number than 30, especially given that the United States is a much bigger country than Norway and theoretically ought to be able to use its superior size to shove Norway into a large puddle.

Before we get to the bad stuff, it’s worth pointing out that the U.S. Olympic squad has had several bright spots. Beloved action teens Chloe Kim and Red Gerard both took gold medals in their respective snowboard events. Luger Chris Mazdzer won the United States its first-ever medal in luge with a second-place finish in the men’s singles competition. John-Henry Krueger won a short track speedskating medal. American Olympics superfans have had a lot to cheer about.

And yet measured against expectations, Team USA has underachieved in Pyeongchang. In FiveThirtyEight on Tuesday, Neil Paine wrote that the United States ought to have won 22.8 medals by this point. (Paine’s projections are based on the United States’ historical performance level in the events that have already taken place.) Since the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, the U.S. has finished either first or second—mostly second—in the overall medal count in every Winter Olympics. Right now, the USA is tied for fifth place with France, with the Olympic Athletes From Russia hot on their heels.

So, what gives? Why is America so bad at the Olympics this year? I have a few theories.

The United States’ marquee names have faltered. Before the games began, American sports fans would have had every reason to expect Nathan Chen would medal in figure skating, Mikaela Shiffrin would medal in the slalom, Lindsey Jacobellis would medal in snowboard cross, and Lindsey Vonn would medal in the super-G. None of these things happened. Chen performed a crummy short program that kept him off the podium, despite a valiant effort to make up for lost points with his free skate. Shiffrin, the best slalom skier on the circuit, finished in fourth. Jacobellis, the best female snowboard cross athlete of all time, likewise took fourth. Vonn might be past her prime, but she is still Lindsey Vonn, and her sixth-place finish in the super-G was a surprise. While Vonn went on to take a bronze medal in the downhill, that’s still four medals Team USA could have been reasonably expected to win that it ended up not winning. Add those four medals to the current total and America moves up to fourth place with 17 medals, and is nipping at Canada’s heels for third place in the medal count. You’re doing great, counterfactual America!

The U.S. has gotten very bad at speedskating. While we’re all very happy that John-Henry Krueger won a short track speedskating medal, the real takeaway here is that a vindictive witch has cursed Krueger’s long track teammates. The United States used to be very, very good at speedskating. Its medal count in the sport is second all time to the Netherlands, and there’s no shame in that. At the 2006 Torino Games the USA won seven speedskating medals. At Vancouver in 2010 the United States won four. But since then there’s been a drought. Zero medals in Sochi. Zero medals thus far in Pyeongchang. In Sochi, the U.S. skaters blamed their high-tech Under Armour skating suits. I blame the witch.

Team USA features athletes who are either very young or very old. The marquee American talents of the Pyeongchang Games have been either the aforementioned action teens—budding superstars who have many more years to go in their careers—or aging stars giving it one last go. I would submit that neither age is optimal for medaling purposes. The younger Olympians are perhaps more susceptible to situational pressures; we may have seen this with Chen. The older Olympians are less likely to succumb to nerves but have a huge amount of wear and tear on their bodies. Shani Davis, Kelly Clark, Ted Ligety, Lindsey Vonn: They’ve all been going to the Olympics for literal decades. Shiffrin, at age 22, is in her athletic prime and will still be near her peak in 2022. She should take up speedskating.

The U.S. has not typically excelled at the events that have been held thus far. Cross-country skiing. Biathlon. Nordic combined. Ski jumping. Most of the events in these sports have already happened, and the USA stinks at all of them. You know which country doesn’t stink at these sports? Norway! America has won one Olympic ski-jumping medal; Norway has won 35.
America has won one Olympic cross-country skiing medal ever; Norway has won 107. Guess how many biathlon medals the USA has won all time? Zero! How about Norway? Thirty-five! The USA is very bad at Nordic combined, having won 4 medals ever in that sport. Norway has won 30 medals all time in Nordic combined, the most of any country. Norway has not won any medals, by contrast, in United States combined, which would be helpful to the American cause if such a thing existed.

But all is not lost: The United States should have a good chance to medal in the men’s freestyle skiing halfpipe, bobsled, women’s combined skiing, and the remaining snowboard events. We might not overtake Norway, but fourth in the medal table is definitely in reach, and maybe even third or second if the U.S. goes on a gold rush. The United States of America: We’re much worse than Norway, but potentially better than France. That’s a slogan to put on a giant foam finger!

Update, Feb. 21, 2018, at 12:10 p.m. EST: The surge is working! In the approximately 11 hours since this piece was published, the United States has medaled twice, winning silver in women’s bobsled and gold in the women’s cross-country team sprint event. The team sprint gold is America’s first-ever gold medal in cross-country skiing, and its first medal of any kind in the sport since the legendary Bill Koch won a silver in 1976. Clearly, Team USA has taken this article to heart, and is ready to start winning again. I claim full credit for these medals, and look forward to being asked to serve as the American flag bearer during the closing ceremony.

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

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