There will be some strange things to behold when the XIV Winter Olympic Games open in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia next week. Such as a luger who rides the wild, icy chute for the greater glory of Puerto Rico. And a German prince who will run a slalom race as the sole Olympic representative of Mexico. And an Alpine ski racer from Egypt who hopes to bring pride to the great domain of winter sport that lies along the Nile. Oh yes, it will be a mixed and wonderful bag of athletes—1,579 from 50 nations—mingling in the medieval mosques and markets of Sarajevo from Feb. 8 to Feb. 19.
But, in truth, no other bunch is quite as intriguing as the U.S. team. Our athletes won't have the most exotic look; the American Olympic uniform is basically the same cowboy hat and sheepskin coat worn in Lake Placid in 1980. Nor will they be the best bankrolled team; the Soviets and the East Germans outspend the U.S. severalfold. No, what is so distinctive about our team is that it should be the best we've ever sent to a Winter Games.
The principal reason for such optimism is the consummate skill of the four athletes who grace the cover of this magazine. They are unique in that they are four reigning world champions, two kings and two queens, and they are ready, willing and able to win their events in Sarajevo. For the record, they are Scott Hamilton, 25, the men's world figure skating champion for 1981, '82, '83; Rosalynn Sumners, 19, women's world figure skating champion; Tamara McKinney, 21, women's overall World Cup ski racing champion for '83; and Phil Mahre, 26, men's World Cup ski racing champion for '83—and for'81 and'82.
Never has the U.S. had as many world titlists at one time in winter sports, and at Sarajevo, no other country will have as many current world champions. Of course, world titles don't automatically mean Olympic gold medals. At this point only Hamilton can be considered a shoo-in (see page 88). Sumners surely has the technique to win a gold, but a certain vapidity in her routines has been evident lately. Yet she'll surely win a medal of some kind. And, just behind her—or possibly a blade or two ahead—could be the mighty acrobat from New Jersey, Elaine Zayak, 18, who finished a hairbreadth third to another medal hope, 16-year-old Tiffany Chin, in the U.S. championships two weeks ago.
Now the ski champions: McKinney has won no races on the World Cup circuit this winter, but she has been consistently in the top five. She won seven races last year. Christin Cooper, 24, of Sun Valley, won three medals at the 1982 world championships in Schladming, Austria and she should win one or two medals in the slaloms on the Jahorina course. There are other aspirants: Holly Flanders, 28, is among the best downhillers in the world, and Cindy Nelson, 28, who won a bronze in the 1976 Olympic downhill, has recovered from a knee injury.
Recently Phil Mahre's mind has been on his family back in Yakima, Wash.—including a child expected at about the end of the Olympics. His best performance this season was a fourth in a slalom in Kitzb√ºhel last week. Still, he should rise to the occasion and get a medal, probably two, in the slaloms at Sarajevo. And so should his twin brother, Steve, winner of the giant slalom at the worlds. Then there's the long-shot daredevil Bill Johnson, a wild and iconoclastic racer who became America's first victorious male downhiller ever on the World Cup circuit, at Wengen, Switzerland, in mid-January. The Sarajevo men's downhill course, which starts on the top floor of a ski lodge on Mount Bjela≈°nica, is a bizarre piece of work, greatly affected by vagaries of weather. Its eccentricities could well fit Johnson's own.
But there's more to this U.S. Olympic team. In the usually non-American territory of Nordic sports, there's Bill Koch (see page 38), now a laid-back philosopher of 28, who won the silver medal in the 30-km cross-country ski race at the 1976 Innsbruck Games and could win one or two medals in Sarajevo. There is also the hitherto all-but-unknown Kerry Lynch, 26, a Nordic combined skier who, but for a fluke of scheduling in Czechoslovakia last year, might have been America's fifth world champ on this week's cover (see page 52).
This should add up to the finest U.S. team ever in a Winter Olympics. What exactly does that mean? So far, the best American results ever were at the two Lake Placid Games: The U.S. won 12 medals (six golds) in 1932 and 12 in 1980 (again six golds). Next best was 11 medals (four golds) in 1952 in Oslo. At the other American Olympics, Squaw Valley in 1960, the U.S. won 10 medals (three golds).
If all goes well in Yugoslavia, the U.S. Olympic team could win two medals (one gold) in women's figure skating, one medal (gold) in men's figure skating, one in pairs figure skating, one in ice dancing, five (one gold) in women's Alpine skiing, three (one gold) in men's Alpine skiing, two in cross-country skiing, one in Nordic combined, one in hockey. That makes 17 medals (four gold) in all.
Could that possibly make the U.S. the best of all teams there? No way: At Lake Placid, the East Germans won 23 medals (nine golds), and they or the Soviets figure to come out on top at Sarajevo. Strange as the goings-on may ultimately prove to be, you'll not find the U.S. team, wonderful as it is, finishing No. 1—any more than you'll find three million Puerto Ricans learning how to say luge in Spanish. Just in case, amigos, it's luge.