SOCHI, Russia — The speedskaters flopped, and the hockey team was blanked when it mattered most. If it wasn’t for some brand new sports, the medal count would be paltry.
Yet U.S. Olympic officials insist this was one of the country’s best Olympics ever.
“I couldn’t be more proud of our Olympic team,” said Larry Probst, chairman of the U.S. Olympic Committee.
A bronze in the four-man bobsled on a day Russia put an exclamation point on its games gave the U.S. 28 medals in Sochi, putting it behind just the host country in total medals. But Norway won more gold than the U.S. (11-9) and the 28 total medals were nine fewer than Americans won in a record-setting performance four years ago in Vancouver.
That total — five fewer than won by Russia — would have been far less if U.S. athletes didn’t win nine medals, including five gold, in sports that made their debut in these games.
To make matters worse, Canada won more gold medals than its much bigger neighbor for the second Olympics in a row.
“We came here to compete,” said Alan Ashley, managing director of sport performance for the USOC. “We came here with a great team and they’ve done a great job. Things don’t always shake out exactly the way you think they’re going to, but the surprises are sometimes way more surprising than the disappointments.”
Among the disappointments were the biggest U.S. stars going into the games. Shaun White got shut out in snowboard and Lindsey Vonn didn’t even make the trip because of injury.
But one new star was born. Teen skiing sensation Mikaela Shiffrin won gold in the women’s slalom and liked it so much that she was already making plans for a record-setting performance four years from now in South Korea.
“Right now, I’m dreaming of the next Olympics (and) winning five gold medals, which sounds really crazy,” Shiffrin said the day after her win. “I’m sorry I just admitted that to you all.”
Shiffrin’s win in her first Olympics couldn’t make up for the collapse of the U.S. speedskating team, which was blanked in old suits and new. Speedskaters were kept off the medal podium for the first time since 1984, despite a switch midway through the games back to their old suits.
“Worst Olympics ever,” two-time gold medalist Shani Davis said.
While the U.S. failed to win a medal on the Sochi big oval, skaters from the Netherlands piled on with eight golds and 23 medals overall in speedskating.
“If you look at speedskating results we weren’t the only nation that got smoked by the Netherlands,” said Scott Blackmun, CEO of the USOC.
Things weren’t much better on the ice for U.S. figure skaters, who won a bronze in the new team event but were shut out individually. Charlie White and Meryl Davis took a bit of the sting out of that performance with a gold medal in ice dancing.
Meanwhile, both the men’s and women’s hockey team left disappointed. The women appeared on their way to winning gold before collapsing in the final minutes against Canada, while the men couldn’t score against either Canada or Finland, which handed the U.S. an embarrassing 5-0 loss in the bronze-medal game.
On the slopes, Shiffrin and Ted Ligety both win gold and the U.S. took five medals, making for a respectable showing. But the U.S. was shut out in the new sport of women’s ski jumping where Americans had looked promising, and there were no medals in either cross-country skiing or the biathlon, sports that Norway dominated.
In addition to winning more golds than the U.S., Norway — with a population of just 5 million — finished just two medals behind in the total with 26.
Ashley said the U.S. medal haul was lower partly because other countries are becoming more competitive in winter sports. He said the team would have liked to have won more medals, but called their performance excellent anyway.
If there is reason to be more optimistic heading toward the games in South Korea in 2018, team officials said it was the strong performance in new sports like ski and snowboard slopestyle and ski halfpipe.
But replicating that success in extreme sports in future Olympics will be difficult, said Steve Roush, the former chief of sport performance for the USOC.
“The rest of the world is catching up,” he said.