VANCOUVER, British Columbia — When they were in disarray, changing bosses, bickering among themselves, the leaders of the U.S. Olympic Committee never forgot their main mission: To help athletes win medals.
So far in Vancouver, it’s been hard to argue with those results.
The U.S. team headed into Saturday evening’s action with 21 medals, a commanding eight-medal lead over second-place Germany. The United States also had six golds, one more than Norway, and was in position to win the overall medal count for the first time since 1932 in Lake Placid.
“I think there’s a real good collaboration that goes on, on a daily basis, between our sports performance people and all the national governing bodies,” chairman Larry Probst said Saturday in an interview with The Associated Press. “There’s a lot of good work going on behind the scenes as opposed to all the unpleasant noise you hear.”
The behind-the-scenes work has been several years in the making, part of the USOC’s reform plan in 2003 when the federation realized, among other things, that it had to cut down on administrative costs and funnel more money to athletes.
Buried among the hundreds of negative stories about the U.S. Olympic movement over the last year was news, last June, that the USOC was adding $16.5 million to the coffers of America’s winter sports, bringing the total funding for the four-year period to $58.2 million. That was a 55 percent increase over 2003-06 despite the ailing economy.
“The process is, they come to us and say, ‘This is the kind of program we want, these are the kind of resources we need,”’ said Scott Blackmun, who last month became the USOC’s third CEO in 11 months. “Our job is to allocate the resources to the NGBs based on where we think they’re going to have the greatest impact.”
Thus far, the money given to the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association has been well spent. Led by two medals each from Lindsey Vonn, Bode Miller and Julia Mancuso, America’s largest winter NGB has accounted for 16 of the 21 medals thus far, including seven in the first five Alpine races. With five events left, that’s already more than the United States has ever won at a single Winter Games.
Led by Shaun White and Seth Wescott, American snowboarders have taken home five medals in a sport that was almost hand-delivered to the Olympics to be a U.S. success.
But maybe the best story of how the Americans have developed athletes over time is in Nordic combined.
Johnny Spillane became the first American to win an Olympic medal in that event last week, and there are other possibilities to come, including Tuesday’s team race.
This is for a program that wasn’t on the map internationally 10 years ago in a sport that has long been dominated by Europeans.
“It’s just a great indication that these kind of outcomes aren’t going to occur overnight,” said Mike English, who became the USOC’s director of sport performance last year after Steve Roush left. “You have to put a plan in place. One thing we consistently said is, you’ve got to have continuity and consistency in your programming. That comes with funding, it comes with maintaining a longer-term approach of what your sport’s trying to do with development.”
It has also been a good Olympics for the USOC off the snow and ice.
With the USOC long criticized as being out of touch with international community, Probst said he’s had one-on-one meetings with 32 IOC members since he arrived in Vancouver. The number who have visited the USOC-sponsored USA House has risen to 41, some of whom would have never shown their face in days of old.
“It’s been really constructive, positive discussions,” Probst said. “We’re going to continue to reach out and engage. We’ve talked a lot about that.”
It’s a long-term project, but the short-term results certainly don’t hurt.
In many ways, American success at the Olympics buoys overall success of the Olympics themselves. U.S. wins drive ratings at NBC, which paid $2.2 billion to televise the 2010 and 2012 Games — the largest single chunk of cash the IOC receives.
Bidding for the American rights to the 2014-2016 package will take place after the Olympics, and NBC’s stellar ratings — the Olympics stopped a six-year winning streak for “American Idol” on Wednesday — should make the games more valuable.
“As they continue to win medals, ratings will likely be high,” Probst said. “That makes NBC very happy, and it makes the IOC happy, because in the next round of negotiations, high ratings mean more dollars.”
True, winning all the medals isn’t the greatest way to make friends.
“But that’s a high-quality problem to have,” Probst said.