SOCHI, Russia (AP) — Shani Davis and the rest of U.S. speedskating pursuit team finished up their last hard lap of the training session, then coasted around the oval with hands on their knees.
“Good work! Good work!” a coach yelled, as the ice resurfacing machines fired up their engines.
Despite a miserable Olympics, the Americans are not giving up on a medal before they get out of Sochi.
No matter what happens over the last few events, though, the program faces a painful self-assessment that could lead to profound changes.
“The review and evaluation will begin on my plane flight home,” Ted Morris, executive director of the national governing body, told The Associated Press on Monday, an off day in the competition.
After arriving at the Winter Games armed with impressive results during the World Cup season and a new suit that was supposedly the fastest in the world, the Americans have been a total bust at Adler Arena. They are facing their first medals shutout since 1984, a major blow to a sport that attracts little attention in the U.S. outside of an Olympic year.
Morris knows the lack of success in Sochi will make his job much tougher when it comes to raising funds, lining up new sponsors and persuading promising athletes to try on a pair of clapskates.
“We definitely count on the Olympics helping us in attracting new talent to the sport. It also helps us grow membership and grow revenue,” he said. “It’s not necessarily going to help from a partner standpoint or a fundraising standpoint if we don’t have success. Once every four years, people pay attention. And the thing is: We don’t have any stars at this Olympics Games. That’s not going to help either.”
While the Dutch team’s record-setting performance is the talk of the arena, the U.S. collapse is also drawing plenty of attention. No American has finished higher than seventh, and the poor performances essentially run throughout the team, with an average finish of 19th in the first eight events — four places lower than the 2010 average at Vancouver.
“They were really, really good in the fall World Cups. And if you look at their trials, too, they were really fast,” said former U.S. coach Bart Schouten, who now works with the Canadian team. “We were like, ‘Wow, these guys are going to rock the house in Sochi.’”
Instead, they landed with a thud.
Morris said the team is focused on its remaining events, though it has little hope of medals in the men’s 10,000 or women’s 5,000. The team pursuits are a bit more promising, but it doesn’t look good the way the Americans have been skating at these games.
Davis, who trained with the Evanston Speed Skating Club during his youth and has two golds and two silvers in his career, would love to close what might be his last Olympics with one more medal.
“At this point, we just want to get whatever we can get our hands on,” the 31-year-old Chicago native said. “Then from there, we can learn from whatever we weren’t able to do this time and try to correct it for next time.”
Plenty of possible explanations have been offered up already, including the new Under Armour suits that were dumped midway through the Olympics.
In a statement Monday, Under Armour said it works closely with teams and athletes to test all its suits.
“Multiple teams and athletes have medaled in World Cup events and global competition leading up to the Olympic Games and have won Olympic medals for their country during Sochi competition in Under Armour uniforms and products,” the company said.
Other possible causes were holding a training camp at a high-altitude outdoor rink in Italy, tiring out the skaters by putting too much emphasis on the fall season, even a sense of overconfidence that left the U.S. team in no shape to compete with the Dutch, who have won 16 of 24 speedskating medals.
“We came into this competition boasting about being the most decorated sport, [having] the most medals,” Davis said. “We have zero here. You’ve got to go out there and do the work. You can’t be boasting and bragging and stuff like that. It can come back to haunt you. That’s exactly what happened.”
Coach Matt Kooreman said there’s already been a bit of gallows humor among the staff, with some people jokingly wondering if they’ll have a job once they get back home.
Morris, who has been in his post only since last September, said it’s far too early to suggest what changes may be coming. He said the organization will conduct its review of Sochi over the next two months; only then, at the end of the World Cup season, would any major changes be made.
U.S. Speedskating has battled money woes and organizational infighting, part of the mess that Morris was brought in to help clean up. Now, after making positive strides behind closed doors, he’s got to address a major flop on the sport’s biggest stage.
“When you thought you had hit an all-time low for an organization, you go a little bit lower,” he said. “I guarantee you we’ll do a full evaluation and figure it out. We’ll get it right. Hopefully, we’ll be celebrating medals with a lot of these same athletes four years from now.”
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