Sunday, February 15, 1998
Medal-less Americans running out of timeNAGANO, Japan (AP) -- Six races. No medals.
Speedskating, the sport that's produced more U.S. medals at the Winter Olympics than any other, is experiencing an M-Wave-sized drought in Nagano. With four races remaining, the best American finish was Jennifer Rodriguez's surprising fourth in the women's 3,000 meters.
And she's a former in-line skater from Florida, for crying out loud.
"We know we don't have too many medal contenders on this team -- yet," said Gerard Kemkers, the U.S. all-around coach.
"Make sure that's a big, bold YET. This team is going to grow. This team is young."
Though it's been 14 years since the Americans were shut out of the speedskating medals, the shutout so far in Nagano wasn't totally unexpected. After all, there was no Bonnie Blair or Dan Jansen to build hopes around. But the folks back home couldn't care less about the circumstances.
Speedskating, which attracts minuscule attention in America except for two weeks every four years, is one of those sports that must produce Olympic medals or face the consequences. So when dozens of reporters crowded around Casey FitzRandolph and KC Boutiette after the men's 1,000 Sunday, they hurled question after question with one basic theme:
What's wrong with you guys?
"I'm doing the best I can and that's all we can ask as Americans," said Boutiette, the platinum blonde with the pierced tongue who hasn't placed higher than fifth at Nagano. "For the amount of skaters we have in the U.S., I think we're going pretty damn well."
Most of the top American skaters are 23 and under. The party line goes something like this: These Olympics are merely a chance to experience the limelight and get used to the intense pressure, then build on those lessons over the next four years. When the winter world comes to Salt Lake City in 2002, the United States will resume its medal-winning ways.
"This is almost like a prep program for us before we get to Salt Lake," Boutiette said, looking ahead t what it might be like to skate with the home-country advantage.
"They're going to be yelling, 'U.S.A! U.S.A!' That kind of stuff gets you going. I think I need that kind of pressure to come down on me before I perform well."
But this is still 1998, which means the Americans have to answer for their current predicament. They have plenty of excuses for the medal-less performance, mostly centering on the clap skate.
"I don't want the public back in America to think we failed as a team, because we didn't," said FitzRandolph, whose best finish in three Olympic races is sixth. "We just kind of got caught with our hands tied."
FitzRandolph, one of the world's top sprinters in the pre-clap-skate era, plunged in the World Cup rankings this season with that clicking noise beneath his feet. Other Americans, including Boutiette and Kirstin Holum, also have complained about having to make the adjustment in an Olympic year.
The rest of the world snickers at the Americans, accusing them of being whiners who failed to adapt in a rapidly changing world.
"I'm not asking for sympathy," FitzRandolph said. "I just want people to see the big picture. To finish fourth, fifth or sixth isn't a failure, especially under these circumstances."
Kemkers notes that the United States had at least one top 10 skater in five of the first six races, including a couple of events where two skaters cracked into single digits on the standings sheet. Compare that with 1994, he said, when the best finish outside of Blair and Jansen was David Cruikshank's 19th in the 500.
"Everybody in America has to realize that we need a few years to build," Kemkers said. "We can't be even a little bit disappointed with how this has shaken out with all the people we have in contention."
Still, FitzRandolph and his teammates can't help but be a little troubled when those skaters from other countries keep stepping onto the podium, watching proudly while their flags are hoisted to the roof at M-Wave.
"What else can you do in a foreign country with no English TV or newspaper?" FitzRandolph said. "We hash over it every day. We're trying to come up with some answers."