Sunday, February 22, 1998
Thank heaven for ... they win goldNAGANO, Japan (AP) -- GIRLS!!! GIRLS!!! GIRLS!!!
You could see them everywhere at the Games.
Front-of-the-Wheaties box girls. Olympic girls. Athletic girls.
Hockey-playing women. Figure-skating women. Skiing, snowboarding and speedskating women. Gold women. Silver and bronze women.
Take them out of the team picture and the United States' total of 13 medals and six golds shrinks to five and two, respectively -- not enough to trump South Korea.
"This all goes back to Atlanta," said Cammi Granato, captain of the U.S. hockey team that did its decorating at the rink. "They opened the way for all of us. And now we've done the same for some of those little girls following us."
Good thing, too. It's likely we're going to need every one of them.
America was 0-for-Nagano through the first three days of these Games, trailing those twin superpowers, Bulgaria and Belgium, in the medal standings. Then Jonny Moseley did his "360-degree Heli-Mute" and won gold in the moguls. An hour later, Picabo Street roared down Mount Karamatsu to double the total.
His teammates managed exactly one more gold, one silver and two bronze the rest of the way. Hers were more productive -- by far.
Nikki Stone matched Eric Bergoust's gold in aerials, speedskater Chris Witty won silver and bronze by herself, and then those high-profile teen terrors, Tara Lipinski and Michelle Kwan, went 1-2 in figure skating to get America to the finish line in respectable fashion. The final total matched the United States' best previous finish at Lillehammer four years earlier.
Now, some men might have trouble handling the notion that women brought home most of the hardware. Fortunately U.S. Olympic Committee executive director Dick Schultz is not one of them.
That's probably because Schultz has been around top-flight female athletes most of his life. Girls high school basketball was already an institution in Iowa when he grew up, and by the time he became executive director of the NCAA, Title IX had been on the books for nearly two decades.
Being fair, Schultz hasn't been with the USOC long enough to claim credit for the rewards being reaped as a result of the increased participation by women. Most of that belongs to Anita DeFrantz, who rowed for the U.S. team at the 1976 Montreal Games, then rose to become the IOC's first woman vice president.
DeFrantz campaigned tirelessly to have the IOC increase the number of Olympic sports for women, then sat back and took some satisfaction as the movement rippled back through the USOC. The upgraded recruitment and training effort that touched off five years ago dovetailed nicely with all the quality athletes already in the pipeline back in the States. Now, it is beginning to pay off big time.
Which raises the question: How far is the U.S. ahead?
"If you're going on the medal count," Schultz said Sunday at the USOC's state of the games news conference, "it's a substantial edge."
Schultz's count also includes the 13 golds the U.S. women won during the 1996 Atlanta Games. Some of the swimming and track and field medals were expected, given the substantial pool of U.S. girls competing at all age levels.
More relevant in helping develop competitive Winter Games teams, both men's and women's, are the victories in team games like soccer, softball and now hockey.
In those sports, the number of U.S. women participating is much closer to the numbers in other countries and, as Schultz noted, we are more than holding our own.
Asked why the United States, with 60 times more people than Norway, won barely half as many Winter Games medals, Schultz's response was instructive.
"I think it's a question of priorities. They don't have the NHL, the NBA, the NFL or Major League Baseball," he said. "What sports they play is a priority established by their parents."
For a long time, the parents of most young girls in America put sports at the bottom of their list of priorities. But now, maybe those same parents will turn on the TV and see somebody else's daughters climbing a medal stand, or making it to the front of the Wheaties box, and maybe it changes their mind that little bit.
"And maybe," said Granato, "when they go out in the back yard and play touch football with their brothers like I did, nobody is calling them back into the house."