As of Saturday night at the Sochi Olympics, Team USA is all but guaranteed not to win the gold or overall medal count. Problems in US speedskating and figure skating are one reason.
On Saturday, with no fanfare and well before the medals were to be handed out, the US long track speedskaters ended their Olympics.The three women of the team pursuit came in 1.74 seconds behind Canada, putting them in sixth place. A little while earlier, the US men had finished seventh.
It put an end to the worst Winter Olympics in history for American long track speedskaters, tying the medalless performances of 1984 and 1956. There is already talk of a formal inquiry into what went wrong for a team that was expected to win three or four medals at least. Jobs could be lost.
At US Figure Skating, there is no such talk. There are some complaints about the judging and pride in the two medals it won – a gold in ice dance and a bronze in the new team event. Yet, by one important measure, US figure skaters had their worst Olympics since 1936. That was the last time the US won no medals in the men's or women's singles events, and it's clear that judging had no effect on that.
Fixing these two sports is crucial to America's Winter Olympics success. Here in Sochi, America will not finish atop the medal table – either for gold or overall medals – and the the performance of these two sports are a big contributor.
They are linked in American Winter Olympic history. Back when the Winter Olympics were a different Winter Olympics – when there was no snowboarding or short track or slopestyle skiing – they were often America's most reliable medal factory. From 1968 to 1988, figure skating and speedskating accounted for 3 of every 4 Winter Olympic medals won by team USA (39 of 51).
The roads to their disappointments in Sochi are vastly different. US Speedskating came to Sochi after a remarkably successful season in World Cup races. By contrast, US Figure Skating has been in a bit of a rough patch for several years.
In that way, the two have different tasks ahead: one must figure out why it performed its worst in the event that mattered the most, while the other must figure out why it has slipped so far that it wouldn't have mattered how its singles skaters performed.
Going forward, though, the problem is the same: No one is exactly sure what went wrong.
The measure of US dominance in figure skating is underlined by the fact that this is the first time since the Winter Olympics began in 1924 that the women have gone two consecutive Games without a medal. In both Olympics, an American woman was fourth – Mirai Nagasu in Vancouver and Gracie Gold here – but it wasn't a particularly close fourth. Both were clearly a class below the medalists.
To some, it looks like a natural lull. "Every nation goes through a cycle like that," says Susan Russell, editor-in-chief at International Figure Skating Magazine.
Combine that lull with the rise of Asian figure skaters and you get two Olympics without a medal. After all, years ago there were no medal contenders from South Korea. Without Kim Yu-na, America would have consecutive bronzes on the women's side.
And it's not just Kim. Denis Ten from Kazakhastan won a bronze, and all three skaters for Japan on the men's and women's side have been as good or better than their American counterparts during recent years.
There are signs that the US could come out of its lull in a big way in Pyeongchang. Gold has developed tremendously since she began working with coach Frank Carroll during the past year, and 15-year-old Polina Edmunds finished a respectable ninth in what was her first senior international competition. They could be the core of a very strong women's team for Pyeongchang.
But others see problems beyond the women's side. The ice dancing pairs behind Meryl Davis and Charlie White have not shown an ability to make the leap to the podium, and no American man has had a reliable quad in his repertoire for a decade – and quad is a must under the current scoring system. Meanwhile, US Figure Skating has long struggled to produce podium-ready pairs.
"How do you get out of the doldrums of pairs being 10th place?" asks George Rossano of Ice Skating International Online. "There is no systematic approach to how you solve that problem."
He thinks there needs to be, and the Russians' performance here shows why. They left Vancouver with no gold medals and a determination not to be kept off the top of the podium in Sochi.
"They were highly embarrassed that they were skunked in Vancouver and they weren't going to get skunked here, so they came up with a four-year plan," he adds. "That kind of organized approach isn't the USFS approach."
In Sochi, they've won three gold medals and five overall.
To be sure, US Speedskating will be coming up with a four-year plan – or something like it. Coming into Sochi, the expectations were perhaps a bit high. There was talk of trying to match the eight speedskating medals won in Salt Lake.
The optimism was fueled by good results on the World Cup tour this year. But some of the best results came at World Cups in Salt Lake and Calgary, where US skaters traditionally do well. In Europe and at sea level, the results – while still good – were not as impressive. Yet even last year, when the World Championships were held on this exact same ice in Sochi, the US came away with three medals: two for Shani Davis and one for Brittney Bowe.
Not winning a single medal was not even considered a possibility little more than two weeks ago. The "Mach 39" skinsuits became a controversy, but it ended up making no difference when the skaters abandoned it. The decision to train at high altitude and outdoors in Italy before coming to an Olympics with an indoor track at sea level has become a greater cause for concern.
But the broader question is whether US Speedskating, the sport's governing body in the US, has lost its way. "It's like the fall of the Roman Empire," coach Bob Fenn told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, citing constant infighting, turmoil, and frequent turnover of coaches, high-performance directors, and executives.
In a sign of that turmoil, president Mike Plant was brought in in March, and executive director Ted Morris joined him in September.
For now, the focus is on whether training in Salt Lake City (elevation 4,675 feet) is hurting the team when it comes to sea level. The Journal-Sentinel notes that US speedskaters have won 56 medals in 128 World Cup races at altitude (15 percent of the medals awarded), and 104 medals in 398 races at sea level (9 percent).
The Dutch, who won a record 23 speedskating medals in Sochi, "have trained right by the water their whole lives and understand how to push heavy air and what tempo is required," one source told the Journal-Sentinel. "Our team is trying to glide and carry speed like in Salt Lake City and it's not working."
Whatever the cause, the United States Olympic Committee is likely to take a keen interest in the Sochi speedskating post-mortem. In 2011, it gave $2.52 million to US Speedskating, more than to US Swimming and behind only the US Ski and Snowboard Association ($3.45 million) and USA Track and Field ($2.72 million). As the holder of the purse strings, the USOC has leverage to help get US Speedskating back on track.
US speedskater Brian Hansen says the federation needs to let people do what they know works. Hansen trains near sea level in Milwaukee and his coach did not want him to go to Italy for high-altitude training.
But Bowe says she has faith the USOC, US Speedskating, and the coaches will figure it out before Pyeongchang. "They want to win just as much as we do."
By contrast, US Figure Skating is self-funded, meaning it controls its own destiny. While Russell of International Figure Skating Magazine sees promise in the women's and even in the ice dance, "the biggest problem is men and pairs."