Legend has it that in 1847, near what is now 600 South Street in
downtown Salt Lake City, gold prospectors heading west happened
upon a lone cedar tree. One after another they gazed around at
the bleak landscape, despaired at the lack of vegetation and
fresh water and continued on, certain that this was no place to
search for riches.
Today's U.S. Olympians see a bounty in Salt Lake City. "It's a
gold mine having the Olympics right here," says Picabo Street,
who has lived in neighboring Park City since August 1999 and
hopes to complete her comeback from right knee surgery and a
broken left femur by winning her third Olympic skiing medal. "If
the Olympics weren't in the U.S., I probably wouldn't have gone
through the effort of making a full recovery. The courses are
spitting distance from my house."
With the Games set to open on Feb. 8, expectations have never
been so high for American winter athletes. Last April, the U.S.
Olympic Committee projected that Americans would win 20 medals in
Salt Lake. Said USOC interim CEO Scott Blackmun, "If we end up
winning 19, I'll be disappointed." As incentive the USOC tied
employee bonuses to the medal haul in Salt Lake and promised to
pay American medal-winners $25,000 for gold, $15,000 for silver
and $10,000 for bronze (increased from $15,000, $10,000 and
$7,500 in Nagano).
Let the prospecting begin.
On the face of it, 20 medals seems like a halfpipe dream. U.S.
athletes have never won more than 13 medals at a Winter Olympics,
having earned that many at Lillehammer in 1994 and at Nagano.
However, the number of medal events has swelled from 38 in 1980
to 78 in 2002, and America has more contenders than ever before:
not only a wealth of good skaters, skiers and snowboarders but
also strong entries in women's bobsled, which will make its Games
debut, and skeleton, which returns to the Olympics after a
Just as important, U.S. athletes will benefit from their
familiarity with the language, food, time zone and venues in
Salt Lake City. At the Winter Olympics the home field advantage
is irrefutable. Not since the Swiss seized one medal at the
first Winter Games, in Chamonix, France, in 1924, and then came
up empty four years later in St. Moritz has the host nation
failed to win more medals on home snow and ice than it did at
the previous Olympics (chart, page 106). At the 16 Winter Games
since 1932, the U.S. has placed among the top three
medal-winning nations five times--including at all three
Olympics held in America.
To prepare for these Games, U.S. athletes have flocked to the
Salt Lake City area over the last few years. Of some 200 members
of the U.S. team, only three are Utah-born, but 38 of them have
moved to the state to train, including defending aerial skiing
gold medalist Eric Bergoust, who arrived in 1997 and resides
three miles from the Olympic site at Deer Valley. In addition to
building camaraderie with one another, the relocated athletes
have been able to practice at and learn the quirks of the
facilities at which they'll compete during the Games. "It's a leg
up for us to get used to the Olympic ice day in and day out,"
says speed skater Derek Parra, who moved from Wisconsin to Utah
in December 2000, leaving behind his wife, Tiffany, who was
carrying their first child. "This oval is unique, and when we
walk in during the Games, it won't shock us if we've been
training there six days a week."
How different can the Utah Olympic Oval be from, say, the $300
million M-Wave speed skating rink in Nagano? Apart from costing
only one tenth as much as the M-Wave (and having an even smaller
fraction of the M-Wave's charm), the Utah rink has a much lower
ceiling, which permits the building's heating system to keep the
arena reasonably warm without compromising the ice's
refrigeration system. The warm air above creates a thicker layer
of water atop the ice than at most speed skating venues, allowing
for maximum glide while the skater's grip stays firm because of
the hard layers underneath. The altitude--at 4,675 feet the Utah
rink is the world's highest indoor oval--helps create denser, more
consistent ice, and the thin air promotes faster times in the
All of which means that you're better off if you've practiced
there. "This is the fastest oval in the world, hands down," says
U.S. Olympian Joey Cheek, a 500- and 1,000-meter specialist who
has lived in Park City since last May. "If you don't get used to
those speeds, you won't be able to hold it or get through the
American athletes in several outdoor sports also feel they have
gained an edge by training at Games sites. "Soldier Hollow has
its secrets," U.S. biathlete Jay Hakkinen says of his venue,
which has cross-country trails and a shooting range. "I try to
walk the course every day. There are no killer hills like a lot
of courses. It's a fast course, so you really have to carry your
speed and know which hills to go hard on." Adds Jeremy Teela, one
of Hakkinen's teammates, "Different parts of the shooting range
have different wind patterns. You need experience on a particular
range to figure them out."
The home edge may be less significant elsewhere. The skeleton,
bobsled and luge runs at Utah Olympic Park are easier to
navigate than most tracks. "No matter how much you train on it,
the advantage is small," grumbles Jim Shea, the 1999 world
skeleton champion, who's better suited to more technically
demanding layouts. While knowledge of the ferocious downhill
course (page 116) could help American skiers, courses for the
other Alpine events won't even be determined until the night
before Olympic races are held. For every skier in the top 15 of
the World Cup standings in a given discipline, a piece of paper
bearing the name of that skier's country is placed in a bowl.
If, for example, the name Switzerland is picked in the giant
slalom drawing, the Swiss can select a course-setter who will
presumably groom and arrange the giant slalom course to mirror
the conditions that suit their team. The GS run in Park City
could thus end up resembling the one in St. Moritz.
Nevertheless, Street and others say they will simply feel more
comfortable competing near home. Some, like Cheek, who lives 40
minutes from the speed skating oval, will return to their houses
after daily practices and competitions during the Games. "Same
relaxing drive I take every day," Cheek says. "I'll move into the
athletes' village after my races so I can have the experience,
but the village has athletes from different climates with
illnesses I don't want to be exposed to. It has athletes not
competing on a certain day who tend to blow off steam and be
thoughtless of others."
Whether or not they avoid the nighttime racket at the village,
American athletes will hear plenty of noise at their events--and
most of it will be exuberant cheering for them from the expected
1.5 million spectators. Dominik Hasek, the goalie who backstopped
the Czech Republic to a gold medal in Nagano, says the home ice
in Salt Lake City will be "a big advantage for the Americans and
Canadians." In artistic sports such as freestyle skiing, halfpipe
snowboarding and figure skating, judges may be swayed by the roar
of the fans. "You don't want to win like that," says aerial skier
Emily Cook, a U.S. medal hopeful who was knocked out of the Games
by foot injuries, "but sometimes in a judged sport, home athletes
get gifts, scores they don't deserve."
Competing at home also has its drawbacks. "Our athletes have
more people they know coming to see them than in Nagano or
Sydney," says Dwight Bell, chef de mission of the U.S.
delegation, "so they have more friends and family asking them
for tickets, directions, where to eat, things they don't need to
be worrying about." U.S. Alpine skier Erik Schlopy lives a mile
from the giant slalom course in Park City but plans to stay with
teammates in Sun Valley, Idaho, in the week leading up to the
races. "If I stay home, I'll spend half my time on the phone
thanking well-meaning people for wishing me luck when maybe I
have to lie down," he says.
So how will the Americans fare? There is no Eric Heiden at these
Games--short-track speed skater Apolo Ohno (page 122) is the most
likely U.S. multiple medalist--and, apart from the women's hockey
team, few Americans are locks for a medal. Nonetheless, seven
U.S. Alpine skiers have earned top three finishes in World Cup
events over the last two seasons, and Bode Miller's three World
Cup slalom victories this season make him the favorite in that
event. Any of the three women figure skaters (Michelle Kwan,
Sarah Hughes and Sasha Cohen) might stand on the podium in Salt
Lake City. Driver Todd Hays should give America its first medal
in men's bobsledding since 1956, and Hakkinen and Nordic combined
skier Todd Lodwick could become the first U.S. athletes to win
medals in their sports since the advent of snow. Alan (Airborne)
Alborn also might bring home America's first medal in ski jumping
since Anders Haugen placed third in 1924.
SI's prediction: Ohno will win three medals, Miller will win
two--making him only the second American male skier in history
to win a pair of medals at a single Olympics--and the U.S. will
finish with a record total of 22. And at closing ceremonies on
Feb. 24, when the torch is passed from Salt Lake City to the
next Winter host, Turin, site of the 2006 Games, a message of
encouragement will be passed along too, to the Italian athletes
already in training: There's no place like home.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER READ MILLER Among the speed skaters who'll be carrying the banner for the U.S. will be (from left) Marc Pelchat, Jondon Trevena, J.P. Schilling and KC Boutiette.
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER READ MILLER Last summer U.S. skiers were already practicing at venues to be used for aerials (the ramp and pool are now covered with snow) and cross-country (above).
COLOR PHOTO: HEINZ KLUETMEIER
COLOR PHOTO: NATHAN BILOW Sledder Lincoln DeWitt, who has lived in Park City for more than a decade, hopes that his knowledge of the home track will help him glide to a medal in skeleton.
Home, Sweet Home
Since 1932 the host country has won an average of four more
medals than it did at the previous Winter Games. If the U.S.
team matches that rate of improvement, it will bring home an
American-record 17 medals and set off the sort of flag-waving
celebration last seen when the U.S. won hockey gold in 1980
Host Previous Games
Site country Medals Medals Improvement
1932 Lake Placid U.S. 12 6 +6
Partenkirchen Germany 6 2 +4
1948 St. Moritz Switzerland 10 3 +7
1952 Oslo Norway 16 10 +6
1956 Cortina D'Ampezzo Italy 3 2 +1
1960 Squaw Valley U.S. 10 7 +3
1964 Innsbruck Austria 12 6 +6
1968 Grenoble France 9 7 +2
1972 Sapporo Japan 3 0 +3
1976 Innsbruck Austria 6 5 +1
1980 Lake Placid U.S. 12 10 +2
1984 Sarajevo Yugoslavia 1 0 +1
1988 Calgary Canada 5 4 +1
1992 Albertville France 9 2 +7
1994 Lillehammer Norway 26 20 +6
1998 Nagano Japan 10 5 +5
Of some 200 U.S. team members, three are Utah-born, but 38 moved
there to train.