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Yes, American Exceptionalism Should Apply to the Winter Olympics, Too

Beating Canada in hockey was nice. But we have the resources to do so much more—so why isn’t Team USA doing better?

Nathan Chen and Mikaela Shiffrin looking sad Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It is nice to beat Canada on ice. It is nicer still to do it twice in the span of a few hours. And it is nicest, perhaps, to be safe in the knowledge that the 2018 Winter Olympics will not go down as a total humiliation for the U.S. of A. After taking a torch to the maple leaf in the women’s hockey final and the men’s curling semifinal on Thursday and bathing in sweet maple syrup tears, Team USA now has eight gold medals, seven silver, and six bronze — good for fourth in both medal total and number of golds, behind Norway, Canada, and Germany.

This comes after days of agonizing about Team USA’s — how shall we put this? — somewhat-less-than-excellent Olympics. The headlines arrived with just the slightest tinge of panic: “Four Theories on Why the United States Is Having Such a Crummy Winter Olympics”; “For Team USA, it’s not quite a medal drought, but it’s certainly no Olympic reign.” “Norway,” a USA Today columnist wrote Monday, “is kicking our red, white and blue rear ends here in Pyeongchang.”

And for all the cheery window dressing and the montages of loving and supportive parents and flag-bedazzled tryhards trying really and truly hard, perhaps the question nagged at you: Is this really the best we can do? At what point does a mild disappointment become a national disgrace? Is it the first fall during the opening moments of a performance of a much-lauded American ice skater? What about the second? The third? Is it when Lindsey Vonn, anointed the face of American glory in the weeks of promos preceding the games, leaves Pyeongchang with a single bronze medal? Is it Italy — freaking Italy — taking the top place at the podium instead? Or Norway running gosh darn laps around the U.S. of A.?

This will not end in international embarrassment. Not exactly. If the games ended this moment, America would have had its fifth-best winter games ever, and the U.S. still has the second-most medals at all Winter Olympics combined, behind (of course) Norway. With two days of competition left (and the men’s curling final looming), American athletes are just a smidge behind the U.S. performance at Sochi in 2014. (Also, we will always have Chloe Kim.) There has been some bad luck this time around, including 21 and counting fourth or fifth-place finishes, to the point that after Vonn came in sixth in the super-G event, she told reporters, “At least I’m not fourth.”

But don’t let this year’s not-quite-humiliation fool you. In recent games, new events have been added that generally favor American competitors, including snowboarding events like slopestyle (added at the Sochi games) and big air (added this year). The U.S. picked up gold medals in men’s and women’s slopestyle in both Sochi and Pyeongchang; the inaugural women’s big air competition resulted in a silver for American Jamie Anderson, behind Austria’s Anna Gasser (the men’s finals are Saturday). In other words: These new events have cushioned the decline in other areas.

Indeed, documents obtained this week by The Associated Press offer a glimpse of just how grim things are. In an internal presentation, the United States Olympic Committee, Team USA’s governing body, predicted that the U.S. would leave Pyeongchang with 37 medals, well above its current total of 21. Even freestyle skiing and snowboarding have been modest letdowns: USOC predicted American athletes would reel in 18 medals. Instead, as of Friday, they have 10.

You can make the case that medal counts are not the be-all and end-all of Olympic competition, that we ought to be at least as interested in the pursuit itself. As Alan Ashley, USOC’s chief of sport performance, told the AP, “I look at it and I go, ‘OK, medals are one story, but if you look at the depth of everything that’s going on, and the number of people who are fourth and fifth place, and the commitment level and intensity of the athletes, you can’t ask for more than that.’”

But Alan, my friend, my buddy, my very reasonable advocate of almost, my pal whom I’m not accusing of supporting participation trophies, my chum who maybe just didn’t see the news about motherflipping Norway — let’s be real: You can. Since the Olympics are a forum for rabid chauvinism, allow me to demand just the tiniest smidge of American exceptionalism here: We can — we should — we must — do better.

Am I a bad patriot for suggesting that anything less than total domination is a failure for our great nation? Maybe. But, well, let me explain. The Olympics, and particularly the Winter Olympics, are not a meritocracy. It is lovely to think of the games as a head-to-head meeting of the world’s greatest athletes, which is true — to a point. For the most part, winter sports require pricy, specialized gear, and that’s assuming you’ve managed to get yourself to someplace with snow in the first place. Plus, the training required to compete at an elite level is wildly expensive and resource-intensive, which is why so many middlingly talented rich people are able to sneak in. It is not a coincidence that Norway, replete with snow and (sports term) dough, has won the most winter medals of any nation, or that Tonga’s lone competitor saw snow for the first time only two years ago.

Also not a coincidence: A remarkable number of foreign athletes train in the U.S., as do many athletes with U.S. citizenship who have opted to compete for other nations. We have the facilities. We have the means. We have no excuse for losing to Norway.