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With Lackluster Medal Count, Americans Hoping for Late Surge to the Podium

With no medal awarded for finishing in fifth, Team USA is struggling to get to the podium in PyeongChang.

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — By my calculation, we are roughly 57.34 percent of the way through these Olympics, which means it’s time for me to get on the wrong bus. But that’s OK, because I knew that wherever I go, an American will finish fifth. If we have learned anything about these Olympics, it’s that an American always finishes fifth.

Have you seen the medal count lately? As of this writing, the U.S. is in sixth place, one spot behind Russia, which isn’t even officially here. I was pretty fired up about that. That’s like losing a bar bet to an empty stool. But then I realized the U.S. can catch Russia without doing anything at all, thanks to the Russian curling scandal.

Yup, we have a Russian curling scandal. Russian curler Alexander Krushelnitsky, failed a preliminary drug test for meldonium, leading thousands of die-hard curling fans to ask: “Is that the guy with the hot wife?” Well, yes. Krushelnitsky and his wife/mixed-doubles partner, Anastasia Bryzgalova, are both quite attractive, in my opinion as a curling expert.

You can only imagine the conversation around their kitchen table.

Her: “You’re going to cost us our medals!”

Him: “I’m really sorry! I only did it because I love you so much, I just wanted to make you happy …”

Her: “We are CURLERS.”

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Anyway: If the good-looking Russians lose their bronze medals, the Russians and Americans will be dead-even at 10 medals. Still, the medal count does not look great for the U.S. That’s why I cornered USOC communications maestro Mark Jones at the Main Press Center.

“Give me your spin,” I said.

“I think you mean ‘perspective,’” he said.

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Jones emailed me the numbers: While the U.S had only 10 medals, it had finished fourth, fifth or sixth a total of 24 times. Yeah, I wasn’t moved either. What do you give an Olympian who finishes sixth? A copper medal? A parade of toy cars on the sidewalk?

The disappointing American performance is a combination of bad luck, missed opportunities and genuine systemic failure. Alpine skier Lindsey Vonn and moguls skier Jaelin Kauf each made one mistake and cost themselves a chance at a medal. Downhill specialist Steven Nyman missed the Olympics with a knee injury and freestyle skier Gus Kenworthy suffered thumb and hip injuries in practice here.

The U.S. has finished third twice, but fourth eight times—it’s reasonable to think the overall performance has been slightly better than the medal count.

Then again, the country that produced Eric Heiden, Bonnie Blair, Dan Jansen and Apolo Anton Ohno cannot figure out how to win in traditional or short-track speedskating. USA speedskating has overhauled everything from its training methods to its suits. Nothing has worked. We may have to slip meldonium into the Dutch skaters’ breakfasts.

Women’s figure skating has long been a marquee event for American viewers, and Americans were always gold-medal threats, even when they were getting clubbed in the knee. But an American has not medaled in women’s figure skating since 2006. Mirai Nagasu could end that streak this year, but she is no sure thing.

And all the talk about Mikaela Shiffrin hid the reality that the U.S. doesn’t have many other medal threats in traditional skiing events.

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The good news is that the Americans do have five golds—the Russians don’t have any—and the remaining 42.66 percent of the Olympics could turn out pretty well for the Americans.

Shiffrin may win another medal and Vonn may win her first of these games. The U.S. has multiple shots at medals in ice dancing, and again, watch for Nagasu. Americans are also primed to pull off their favorite Olympic trick, dominating events nobody has ever heard of before, like the Big Air competition.

(Incidentally, the Big Air course is across from ski jumping’s Normal Hill and Large Hill in the Pyeongchang Olympics’s Generic Section. It is actually a beautiful venue, one of the coolest I’ve ever seen at the Olympics, but if any skiers fly through the Big Air and end up with Large Bumps on their Poor Heads, which seems likely, I assume somebody will be ready with a basket of CVS-brand pain medication.)

There is one guarantee left: The U.S. women’s hockey team clinched at least silver with a 5-0 semifinal win over Finland. The U.S. will go for gold Thursday, and by then it may feel like that the entire American Olympics will hinge on the result. But at least they won’t finish fifth.