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For U.S. Olympic team, not exactly golden days | Bob Ford

Bob Ford, STAFF COLUMNIST

Updated: Monday, February 26, 2018, 4:17 PM

Mikaela Shiffrin was one of the few bright spots for the United States in Pyeongchang.

The global celebration of peace and harmony that ended Sunday evening in Pyeongchang, South Korea, did so with hundreds of angry, drum-beating protesters demonstrating outside the stadium.

This is not the sort of news you can expect from Olympic broadcast partners, however, and the turmoil in the streets during the closing ceremony wasn’t brought up, even though North American outlets had 14 hours to mull the decision before air time.

There are always two separate Olympics that take place when the IOC convenes its biennial money-laundering convention. There is the real one and the one you see on television. A certain amount of overlap exists, like a star-spangled Venn diagram, but reality usually takes a back seat to the window dressing of patriotism, courage and determination.

It wasn’t mentioned very often, for instance, that the team assembled by the United States Olympic Committee pretty much soiled the bed in South Korea. The medal count was the lowest in 20 years, and would have been abysmal were it not for the snowboarding and freestyle skiing X-sports that have been added recently.

The Associated Press obtained an internal USOC document that put the organization’s goal at 37 medals, with an absolute minimum of 25 for the Pyeongchang Games to be considered anything short of a disaster. The final count was 23 medals, including 11 from snowboarding and freestyle.

“To quantify it in how many medals you have is not appropriate and doesn’t respect the athletes and what they’ve put in to be in these Games,” said Lindsey Vonn, who came away from what is expected to be her final Olympics with a bronze medal in the downhill.

Appropriate or not from her point of view, it is the way they keep score. Every athlete from every nation works hard to get to the Olympics. If that alone is what makes them special, then they are all special and the IOC should start handing out participation ribbons and orange slices instead of gold medals. It would certainly cut down on the overhead.

In the alpine and figure skating events that form the backbone of the Winter Games, the U.S. team had an almost unbelievably poor showing. Mikaela Shiffrin salvaged things a little for the alpine women with a gold in the giant slalom and a silver in the alpine combined, but the men left without a single medal in their five events and the highlight was a fifth place in the alpine combined by two-time gold medalist Ted Ligety. In the other events, the highest U.S. finishes were 11th in the giant slalom, 14th in the Super G, 16th in the downhill and 18th in the slalom. Ugh.

As for figure skating, the daily highlight was seeing what Johnny Weir had done with his updoo this time. There was a bronze in ice dancing for the U.S., and a bronze in the team event, highlighted by a triple axel from Mirai Nagasu, but that was about it. Nathan Chen, the quad specialist, melted down in his short program and the women weren’t competitive at all, finishing ninth, 10th and 11th. All three Russian skaters, including the gold and silver medalists, finished ahead of them.

Well, what of it? The USOC has vowed to do better and to put added resources into developing top-level competitors, even if that means narrowing the pool of athletes to a more select few. That’s one way to do things, and that was the intent of the curling federation when it instituted an elite program four years ago that didn’t include the team of John Shuster. Imagine USA Curling’s surprise when Shuster and his buddies won the gold medal last week. Predicting brilliance is a difficult proposition, and sometimes a wider net is the better way to go.

In some ways, unless you happened to be Norwegian, the biggest drama of the Games was whether the IOC would lift its ban on the Russian flag for the closing ceremony. Dozens of Russian athletes had been banned from the Games because of past doping violations, and the state-sponsored doping programs were so obvious that even the IOC couldn’t ignore them. The Russians who were allowed to compete did so under a neutral flag and stood for a neutral anthem and were not Team Russia, but Olympic Athletes from Russia.

It was expected that Russia would be allowed out of its time-out corner for the closing ceremony, and no doubt would have been — all is forgiven! — except there were two more OAR athletes popped for doping violations during the Games. Oops.

That didn’t stop the OAR hockey team from drowning out the Olympic anthem with a boisterous rendition of the Russian anthem when they stood atop the medal podium, but boys will be boys.

That political dust-up had nothing to do with the demonstrations outside the stadium. Those were a lot more local. North Korea and South Korea, which failed to forge a peace treaty more than 60 years ago and are theoretically still at war, made nice briefly during the Games, and even fielded a combined women’s hockey team.

For the closing ceremony, however, North Korea chose to send as its representative Gen. Kim Yong-chol, the vice chairman of the ruling party and the believed mastermind of a 2010 torpedo attack that sank a South Korean ship and killed 46 sailors. There he was, sitting right next to Ivanka Trump, whose daddy and Kim’s boss engage in nasty exchanges over whose nuclear button is bigger.

Maybe that was the most fitting end to the show. There were moments, as there always are, but those were merely veneer atop the bruised structure of politics and money and cheating that keep dogging the Olympics.

The hope is that it can get better. For the U.S., at least in the medal table at this one, it can’t get much worse.

Bob Ford, STAFF COLUMNIST

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