Everyone kept looking for someone to blame. The Russians offered
conspiracy theories involving the NHL and corporate interests;
the South Koreans offered up accusations of incompetent judging;
the Canadians first painted themselves the victims of
vote-swapping and then, as the hockey tournament wound to a
close, offered up the novel idea that the world hates Canadians.
Boycotts were threatened, temperatures rose, yet apart from all
the fiery complaints lay the not-so-subtle subtext of the 2002
Winter Olympics: The U.S. won medal after surprise medal in Salt
Lake City--10 gold and 34 overall, more winter medals than it
had won before (13 in 1994 and '98), in fact--and made the rest
of the world look bad. Who's responsible?
So many, it seems, had a hand in it. Blame New York Yankees
owner George Steinbrenner, who chaired the U.S. Olympic
Committee commission that in 1989 recommended a massive infusion
of money and support for various winter sports, and the USOC,
which adopted that recommendation, provided millions over the
following decade plus $40 million over the last four years just
in preparation for the Salt Lake City Games. Blame the
International Olympic Committee, which, in its quest to skew
younger and more female, admitted America-friendly sports like
aerial skiing in '94 and snowboarding and women's hockey in '98.
Blame U.S. winter sports federations, which hired superior
coaches from overseas and recruited a rainbow coalition of
talented athletes from summer sports and Sun Belt states.
Blame winter sports boosters like former U.S. Olympic luger
Bonny Warner, who not only pushed to get skeleton and women's
bobsled admitted to this year's Games--events that yielded three
gold and one silver medal for America--but also lured Alabama
native Vonetta Flowers from the running track to the bobsled run
and trained her. In Salt Lake City, Flowers, the brakeman for
driver Jill Bakken, became the first African-American to win
Winter Olympic gold. "My goal was to make the Summer Olympics,"
said Flowers, 28, a former long jumper and sprinter, "but God
had a different plan for me."
A different plan is exactly what the USOC needed to turn the
U.S. into a Winter Games powerhouse. After American athletes won
a paltry six medals at the 1988 Olympics--causing Steinbrenner,
a former USOC vice president, to erupt at the team's
futility--U.S. Olympic officials realized that they had to
discard conventional wisdom and their reliance on the limited
talent pool found in the northern and mountain states. They
started thinking and looking outside the box. Flowers, who
responded to a bobsled flyer at the 2000 U.S. track and field
trials in Sacramento, wasn't the only Southerner competing in
the bobsled in Salt Lake City. Todd Hays, a Texas-born former
linebacker for Tulsa, came to the sport after his brother saw a
recruiting ad on TV. He drove his four-man sled to a silver
medal last week, ending a 46-year U.S. medal drought in men's
races. In the sled with him was brakeman Garrett Hines, an
African-American former Southern Illinois tailback raised in
March 4, 2002
Indeed, the fortnight in Salt Lake City revealed that the Winter
Olympics had undergone a face-lift--one that not only removed
wrinkles but also added some much needed color. Speed skaters
Derek Parra of San Bernardino, Calif., and Jennifer Rodriguez of
Miami became the first Mexican-American and Cuban-American,
respectively, to win a medal at a Winter Games, and Apolo Ohno's
gold and silver medals in short-track speed skating made him the
most decorated Japanese-American Winter Olympian.
"The Winter Olympics have always basically been the white
Olympics," says the 39-year-old Warner, whose best finish in
three Olympics was sixth in 1988. "I hope the size of this
success and the diversity will wake up the country, wake the
sleeping giant. When I went to the track and field Olympic
trials to recruit athletes for bobsled, none of them believed it
was possible. Now they will. Three quarters of the athletes
there could have been competitive in a whole host of winter
sports. Give me the people who didn't make the quarterfinals in
the 100-meter sprint, and I'll give you a whole bunch of
medalists in bobsled, speed skating and skeleton in four to
eight years. That depth of talent in the U.S. has never been
If sprinters can become Winter Olympians, so can kids wheeling
around on in-line skates and skateboards. U.S. speed skater KC
Boutiette is a former champion in-line skater whose switch to
long-track speed skating in 1993 served as a clarion call for
all alterna-jocks to take a spin in the old man's car. The
American sweep in men's halfpipe snowboarding had its roots in
every parking garage and stairwell where skateboarders roll.
Silver medal-winning doubles luger Brian Martin began his
Olympic journey by oiling the wheels on his street luge and
sliding down asphalt. Sixteen of the 34 U.S. medals in Salt Lake
City came in sports introduced or re-introduced to the Games
since '88--snowboarding (5), short track (3), skeleton (3),
freestyle skiing (3), women's ice hockey (1) and women's bobsled
Nowhere was the infusion of new Olympic blood more evident than
in speed skating: Of the 11 medals won by Americans in that
sport, a record for the U.S., seven were earned by former
in-liners Ohno, Parra, Rodriguez and Joey Cheek. Before
Boutiette, says Parra, "the Olympics wasn't even a thought for
Of those skaters Parra most fully embodies the Winter Olympic
team's rags-to-riches transformation. Parra, 31, had spent
almost all of the past 14 months away from his wife, Tiffany,
and their newborn daughter, Mia, in order to train in Utah,
often wondering if he shouldn't join them in Orlando. Unlike the
middle-class heroes usually celebrated in the Winter Games,
Parra grew up working-class, roller-skating to disco at a San
Bernardino rink. His only contact with the Games was watching
them on TV, except for the time that Parra, then 16, approached
speed skating god and champion cyclist Eric Heiden after a
bicycle race in Redlands, Calif. Parra asked Heiden if he could
have his race numbers. Heiden signed them and sent the boy on
A year later Parra left home to pursue a career in in-line. He
trained in Florida, taking a 4 a.m. to noon job at a McDonald's
because it allowed him to train, and it meant he could eat
burgers out of the garbage to save money. He won 18 gold medals,
including one at the in-line marathon at the 1995 Pan Am Games
despite being hit by the pace car during the race. However,
intent on the Olympics, he made the switch to the ice in 1996.
Despite a slight, 5'4" frame, he quickly won a spot on the
national team thanks to his power and dedication.
Parra came along just when the USOC was starting to set its
sights on Salt Lake City. Desperate to capitalize on the
once-in-a-generation showcase of a home Winter Games, the USOC
in 1998 nearly doubled its planned $22 million outlay for the
four years leading up to the Games by launching its Podium 2002
program, through which the USOC distributed that additional $18
million to those athletes considered medal prospects--adding or
removing athletes from the program as they improved or declined.
Flowers received $29,000 over 18 months, Ohno $75,000 over four
years, Parra $70,000 over three years. Yes, that's pocket change
for an NBA star, but for these athletes the cash gave them
enough breathing room to train without worry.
Parra also benefited from the USOC's 20-year-old jobs program,
under which Olympic sponsor Home Depot has employed 280 Summer
and Winter Games prospects at stores across the country.
(Allstate, Anheuser-Busch and other companies have participated
in the program.) Parra worked 20 hours a week in the flooring
department at a Home Depot in West Valley City, Utah. His hours
were flexible, he received full benefits, and he was paid as if
he worked 40 hours. "I got Employee of the Month three times," he
says. "I enjoyed working. It helped me to get away from skating."
All told, the jobs program helped support 14 U.S. athletes who
competed in Salt Lake City, including bobsledder Hines, women's
skeleton winner Tristan Gale and three other medalists.
The USOC saw in the sledding events a unique opportunity to
boost the American medal count. In January 1999, 10 months
before skeleton and women's bobsled were admitted to the Games,
the committee gambled that those would be included at Salt Lake
City and poured more than $250,000 of support into them. "That
one year made the difference," says Warner, a member of the
Athletes' Advisory Council. "The Germans [a traditional power in
sledding events] were caught off-guard. Their federation didn't
fund their women's bobsled program until 2001, and it was the
same for skeleton. We got a huge jump." Meanwhile, thanks to
sponsor money and funds put out by NASCAR driver Geoff Bodine,
the U.S. men's bobsledders took to the track in their fastest
sleds ever, designed by Chassis Dynamics in collaboration with
Bodine. Perhaps equally important, the U.S. sledding base of
operations was shifted from Lake Placid, N.Y., to the new run in
Park City. Training was geared not to the European schedule of
competition, but to only this run, these 17 days.
The U.S. speed skaters focused with equal intensity on preparing
to race at the Utah Olympic Oval in Kearns. Parra and other
skaters moved into the mountains of Park City to take advantage
of the 7,000-foot altitude and then drove down to train at the
Olympic Oval, which at 4,675 feet is the world's highest indoor
oval. The Oval also has a low ceiling that makes for better
climate control and faster ice. Rightly figuring that only
world-record times would win medals--world records were set in
eight of the 10 long-track events during the Games--the U.S.
coaching staff insisted on training laps at world-record pace.
USOC funding ensured that skaters' every athletic need was met.
"We've basically been able to train for this Olympics, for this
venue, exactly how we wanted," said U.S speed skating coach Mike
Crowe during his team's impressive Olympic run. "We had three
coaches and full medical support, which we've never had before.
We had trainers and doctors available to us 24 hours a day, and
we had a physiologist with us on the spot, which we'd never
had." In other words, says Parra, for the first time "we were
treated like somewhat professional skaters."
Intent on beating the Dutch at their own game, the U.S. speed
skating federation also opened its doors to foreign
coaches--initially Gerard Kemkers of the Netherlands, Parra's
first coach, who also helped Rodriguez make the transition from
in-line skating before returning to his homeland in 1998, and
then, for the last four years, Bart Schouten, also from the
Netherlands, who is now the U.S.'s all-around coach. Governing
bodies in other winter sports also hired foreign coaches,
leading to America's best showings in most of the sports in Salt
Lake City. Nearly one third of the U.S. Olympic team's head or
assistant coaches at the Games were from other countries.
The home crowd advantage no doubt further boosted American
performances in Utah, but Parra drew his greatest inspiration not
from chants of "U-S-A!" but from the Games' most solemn moment.
During the opening ceremonies, the night before he competed in
the 5,000, Parra was one of the eight athletes to carry the World
Trade Center flag into Rice-Eccles Stadium. In presenting the
athletes with the flag beforehand, the Port Authority of New York
and New Jersey officers who shepherd it around told them how
proud of them their families were and the victims of Sept. 11
would have been. You'll never forget this moment, they said.
"All of us were sitting there, and all of us were crying and
touching the flag," said Parra. "It was a spiritual moment
almost, and then when we were holding it and the national anthem
was playing and they got to 'O'er the land of the free,' this
gust of wind lifted up the flag. It was amazing, and it pumped me
up before I skated the next day." Five of those flag bearers
ended up winning medals.
Parra ripped through his 5,000-meter skate the following
afternoon, slashing an astonishing 14.85 seconds off his
personal best to set a world record of 6:17.98. His mark was
soon eclipsed by Dutch superstar Jochem Uytdehaage, but Parra's
stunning mark--he'd been ranked 15th in the world in the 5,000
before the race--set the tone for the Americans the rest of the
way. The next day he took his medal to his Home Depot,
corralling shopping carts in the parking lot as he walked toward
the door. Ten days later, favored to win the gold in the 1,500,
Parra did just that, in the world-record time of 1:43.95.
Whether the U.S. can repeat its astonishing Olympic performance
four years from now at the Turin Games is questionable. The
Americans will have to make do without home field
advantage--most important, familiar venues but also huge crowd
support--and perhaps some of the funding that carried them onto
the podium so regularly in Salt Lake City. Nothing even remotely
like the Podium program is planned. "Our challenge is to make
sure the money doesn't dry up," says USOC president Sandy
Baldwin, concerned that sponsors will lose interest with the
Olympics' moving abroad. "We'll have to work much harder because
we don't have the home games. But I believe we can do it."
Parra isn't looking that far ahead yet. He needs to reconnect
with his wife and get to know his daughter, and after that,
maybe he can set his sights on Turin. He might skate
professionally in the Netherlands; he might move to Orlando and
live with his family and work at Home Depot. It's up to Tiffany,
and the money. "Maybe I'll get moved to lumber now," Parra says.
No, his life will likely shift a bit more than that. Parra has
helped put a new face on the Winter Olympics, after all, and
that kind of achievement usually brings in more than a fresh
shipment of two-by-fours. Last Friday, after winding up with a
13th-place finish in the 10,000, Parra hugged his father while a
TV crew filmed and new and old friends fell on him in a pack.
At that moment, across the street from the Oval, three boys
skidded about on the sidewalk of Kearns High School on bikes and
a skateboard: jumps, wheelies, the usual tricks. They wore hats
pulled low, seemed both focused and ready to flee, which was
just about right. Years from now, when the world seeks someone
new to blame, this will be remembered as the place where the
guilty got started. The place where all the old Olympic
lines--between winter and summer, hot and cold, ice and
The USOC realized it had to discard conventional wisdom and
start thinking and looking outside the box.
The U.S. bet that skeleton and women's bobsled would be in at
Salt Lake City and pumped money into the sports.
"My goal was the Summer Olympics," said Flowers, a former
sprinter, "but God had a different plan for me."