Hail the Ice Dancers, Because U.S. Has Struggled

At last, America has an Olympic story that warms hearts rather than shatters them, aggravates them or bores them. Meet Meryl Davis and Charlie White, whose 17-year partnership has lasted longer than most marriages, long enough that they’ve become the first U.S. ice-dance team to win gold.

“The closest we came to breaking up? I can’t pinpoint one because there hasn’t been one,” White said. “It’s a partnership where I couldn’t have asked for more.”

“There has never been a moment of doubt,” Davis said.

A nation would love to collectively hug them and muss up White’s curly blond hair. That’s because, with the exception of a raging men’s hockey team and a few hazy snowboarders and slopestylists, the U.S. effort in Sochi hasn’t exactly been national-anthem-worthy. In fact, if we had an emotional stake in winter sports, these Games would be considered a major catastrophe, from Shaun White to Shani Davis to similar stragglers of all sorts. Skier Bode Miller even became a tragic figure, first failing to complete his redemption tale by flopping in the men’s downhill, then sounding whiny in wishing he’d have sought Lasik surgery, then failing again before finally managing a bronze medal in the super-G, only to garner sympathy when NBC reporter Christin Cooper badgered him insensitively in a post-race interview about his brother, Chilly, who died last year from a seizure.

NBC is afraid to upset Vladimir Putin. But Cooper’s questions drove Miller to sob uncontrollably before he collapsed in visible agony. A responsible editor would have ended the sequence there, but we were forced to watch Miller in his weeping pain for what seemed hours. How pathetic to exploit anguish for ratings, which are markedly down from the 2010 Vancouver Games, another indication that viewers don’t want to wait nine-to-12 hours to see broadcast images from a farawat time zone and aren’t interested enough in droves to watch via live streaming or cable.

Such is the desperation caused by a sporadic U.S. performance. Here we thought Vancouver, where the U.S. won a team-record 37 medals, was a breakthrough reflecting our growing prowess in winter sports. But while the U.S. has won 17 medals and five golds in Russia, with several nights of competition remaining, the big-ticket names have been disappointing. It should give us pause — are we too quick to lather-hype athletes who perform in near-anonymity for more than three years and feature them in heavy-rotation TV commercials that run throughout the Games, only to find in defeat that they were overmarketed? It’s important for the U.S. Olympic Committee, in tandem with NBC and the corporate sponsors, to publicize the supposed top athletes and tease story lines that lure eyeballs and generate ratings.

But when the story lines sag, the network is left to scramble and the USOC is forced into spin control. “Vancouver was a once-in-a-lifetime performance by our team,” said USOC CEO Scott Blackmun, per USA Today. “While that’s a good benchmark from an aspirational standpoint, it’s not a realistic expectation every time we compete because it was just so special. It was like competing on home soil, our time zone, our culture, our food — it was that combined with the fact that our athletes had a lot of lifetime best performances.”

Or, maybe Vancouver was just a fluke. America doesn’t specialize in winter sports as much as smaller countries, such as the Netherlands and Norway, where snow and ice is a way of life. Admits Blackmun: “We have never been the winter powerhouse.” But who knew the Americans would be winter powder puffs? At least Bob Costas, who finally returned to the anchor desk amid his bout with pinkeye and reminded us to never take him for granted as America’s elite sports commentator, has a legitimate excuse for his issues. Most of the U.S. athletes do not.

The list of bummer stories is endless. It started when ski queen Lindsay Vonn, whose dominance in the mountains and romance with Tiger Woods would have made for sensational TV, blew out her knee. It continued when Evan Lysacek, the defending men’s figure-skating gold medalist, pulled out because of injury and went to work for NBC. Each day at the Games brings more sour news. Sorry, I’m the messenger.

Nothing is more embarrassing than a team that helps design special new suits for the Olympics, doesn’t try out the new suits in pre-Olympic competition, then blames the suits when the team fails to win a medal. Meet the U.S. speedskating team, starring Shani Davis, who was primed to seize the 1,000 meters and become the first male speedskater to win three successive golds in an event. Not only did Davis fail to medal, he came up empty in Sochi. Why? The new Under Armour suits, of course, say some blame-assessors connected with the team. Davis was smart enough to blame himself, saying, “I would like to think that it’s not the suit. I would never blame the suit. I’d much rather blame myself. I just wasn’t able to do it.” That didn’t stop Under Armour from issuing a polite but firm statement: Look in the mirror, crybabies. “Under Armour is dedicated to providing the most innovative, state-of-the-art technology to our world-class athletes for competition in Sochi and in competition around the world,” the company said.

Figure skater Ashley Wagner, upset at her scores in team competition, made a pissed-off face that became a global meme. At least she had fun with it by continuing to make the same face — on the “Today” show, in a photo shoot. “The fact it went viral, it’s one of the most awesome things that happened to me in my entire life. I think it’s pretty funny,” she said. But we’d much rather see her win.

John Daly, no relation to the wildman golfer, was in posiiton to win a medal in the skeleton competition when his sled slid off the track at the start of his final run. “I knew it was over. I had a mile of ice to think about what just happened and now I have four more years to wait,” he said, holding back tears.

The alpine ski team, minus Vonn, has woefully underachieved. Miller managed a bronze, as did Julia Mancuso, but more was expected of both. America needs Ted Ligety to justify his non-stop ATM ads with a victory Wednesday in his specialty, the giant slalom, though he did impress us after his setback in the super-combined when he said, “To put it simply, I choked.” We’re looking closely, too, at Mikaela Shiffrin, the 18-year-old hope who seeks gold in the slalom. Otherwise, what happened? “There is definitely disappointment,” said Mancuso, whose so-called lucky underwear didn’t come through. “For sure in the downhill, I wanted to have a better race. And Bode, for sure, wanted to do better.”

Shaun White came to Sochi with a new brand to protect — no more shaggy red locks, replaced by a corporate look — but didn’t even win a medal, losing to a likeable kid named Iouri Podladtchikov, nicknamed I-Pod. White, who had asked us not to call him Flying Tomato, blamed a sore wrist and the bad snow at Rosa Khutor, which didn’t bother I-Pod. “I’m all right,” said White, who has made his millions.

Jeremy Abbott, known for succumbing to pressure in international competition, melted down in the team figure-skating competition. So, deciding his problem was the athletes’ village, he checked out and moved into a hotel. “I was a little too laid back, relaxed and mushy,” Abbott said. He melted down in the individual competition, too.

J.R. Celski was touted as the next Apolo Ohno. You know his story: He severely gashed his leg, leaving pools of blood on the ice, only to return for a shot in Sochi. Oh, no. He finished fourth.

It’s understandable why ski-jumping world champ Sarah Hendrickson finished 21st. She is coming off August surgery on her right knee. “My performance was not the best,” she said, “but I kind of expected it.” So why did they put her on a TV commercial where she was skiing up an automated airplane ramp?

How much did we hear about Kikkan Randall, who was projected as a possible gold medalist in cross-country skiing? She failed to survive the quarterfinals, frustrating headline writers everywhere who wanted to publish, “Kikkan Ass.” Said Randall: “That’s sport, right? You try your whole life for something like this and it’s over in 2 1/2 minutes.”

Kelly Clark, favored to win the women’s halfpipe, crashed and settled for bronze. Hannah Kearney, poised to become the first free skier to repeat as an Olympics gold medalist, settle for bronze. See a pattern? “Whenever we start predicting medals, we get way off track,” Blackmun told the Associated Press. “Our job is to make sure the athletes are prepared. What we can control is: Are they ready to compete?”

Some were. Sage Kotsenburg, he of the Jeff Spicoli vibe and the thoroughly unexpected gold in slopestyle snowboarding, has been partying for a week — first in Sochi, then In New York, where he did all the requisite TV shows. “You’re just tripping out,” he said.

But all we heard before the Games was Bode, Bode, Bode. What went wrong? “I was supposed to get an eye surgery earlier this year,” he said. “We just never found the time to do it because the race schedule was so tight. We were pretty pissed looking back on that, that we hadn’t figured out a time to do that, because for me, my vision is critical. When the light is perfect I can ski with any of the best guys in the world. When it goes out, my particular style suffers more than the guys who are more stable and sort of don’t do as much in the middle of the turns.”

I see.

So, rather than feed pre-packaged baloney to the public, maybe NBC and the USOC and the corporate sponsors should slow down on the pre-Games hype. Let the wonderful moments happen naturally instead of anticipating them with 30-second, money-making blizzards. “I was telling Charlie in the middle of the program, I felt like I was in a dream,” Meryl Davis was saying. “It’s such a surreal experience.”

Know what? Not once had I seen them on a TV ad. I look forward to their glorious commercial in the coming days, after the fact.