The Odds On Nagano

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Leading into this Olympic year, the U.S. Ski Team training camps were a media madhouse, with TV and print journalists scrambling for telling sound bites and predictions. But don't expect to hear bold proclamations about winners and losers before the upcoming Games. Instead, you'll likely hear sweeping statements: The Austrians have the most depth, the Norwegians always peak for the big events-educated yet noncommittal observations.

Some degree of caution owes itself to the negative press leading into the 1994 Olympics, when Sports Illustrated described the U.S. alpine team as "Uncle Sam's lead-footed snowplow brigade." A week later, the team had four medals to show as vindication. From a purely analytical standpoint, there was little reason to expect such a good showing by the Americans in '94. But the Olympics defy rational predictions-that's what makes them exciting, both for the competitors and the spectators. Here in the home office of SKI, knowing what we do about Nagano and Olympic history, we're leaving the predictions to the fortune-tellers and palm readers.

In hearing recollections from past Olympic competitors, it seems that surprise performances are more the rule than the exception in the Olympics. They come in many forms: There are one-hit wonders such as Italy's Paola Magoni, who won the slalom in 1984. And spectacular feats of courage such as Franz Klammer's downhill run in 1976. Dark horses come in with little notice and frequently steal the show: Debbie Armstrong beat her more famous teammates to win the GS in 1984, and Leonard Stock came to Lake Placid as an alternate for the 1980 Austrian team and left as the Olympic downhill champion. In addition to the stealthy underdogs, there are the brashly confident performers, such as Bill Johnson, who announced his 1984 downhill win days before the race-and made good on that promise.

Johnson's clairvoyance notwithstanding, athletes themselves are usually no more proficient at making predictions than the professional observers. Those who have participated in more than one Olympics frequently had their best performances when they least expected-as rookies or in an event where for some reason the odds were stacked against them. Then, when they felt most prepared, they often suffered lackluster performances.

For Eva Twardokens, who spent 13 years on the U.S. Ski Team but competed in just two Olympics, getting there was the toughest part. In 1984, she just missed qualifying for the Olympics. "I wasn't too worried about it at the time," said Twardokens. "I figured I was young (18 years old) and that Calgary in 1988 would be 'my' Olympics."

But Twardokens blew out her knee in the first race of the 1987-88 season and watched "her" Games on crutches, 10 rows back. Four years later, Twardokens finally qualified to be an Olympian, but a pre-race basketball injury almost kept her from starting. She finished just two steps off the podium in fifth. "In 1994 things were going close to normally, and it looked like my best chance for a medal," recalls Twardokens. So what happened? "I choked my first run to put me out of contention. Sometimes I wonder if I would have had a better chance as a dark horse in '84."

Athletes and coaches try to rationalize that the Olympics is just another competition, and on the surface it is: same competitors, same format as a World Cup. But the air at the Games is charged-right from the pomp of the Opening Ceremonies, which in person moves even the most fiercely cynical. I'm an avowed parade-hater, but walking into my first Opening Ceremonies in Calgary-living the scene I'd watched so many times from the other side of the cameras-was hands down the most electrifying feeling of my life.

The anxiety that accompanies the last-minute qualifications may dissipate with Opening Ceremonies. But it is soon replaced with a different kind of energy in the Olympic Village, where so many elite athletes are wound up like springs, ready to take ttheir shots at the history books. For some, the hype raises their performance to new levels; for others, it proves to be too great a distraction, and the almighty choke ensues.

The human elements aren't the only variables in an outdoor sport. The single biggest factor in results at this Winter Olympics may simply be the weather. Every major Japanese skiing competition in the years leading into these Games has been severely affected by the winter storm systems that churn around the islands. On any given day, it's not unusual to have gale-force winds, torrential rain, snow flurries and brilliant sunshine. The one time I raced in Japan, in 1991, we were totally at the mercy of the weather. During the span of that two weeks, race organizers only managed to pull off two races, both in the same day.

Again, at the 1993 World Championships in Morioka-Shizukuishi, not one race was held on schedule and the men's super G was weathered out. It was a similar story at Nagano's pre-Olympic races last season. This can have a huge effect on the athletes and the results-especially in the speed events, which in Japan are not known for being exceptionally long or difficult. With less to separate the skiers' abilities, slight details and variations can make a huge difference at the finish line. Ski technicians spend weeks testing the fastest skis, waxes and preparations for the exact snow conditions projected for the planned start time. When weather delays occur, much of that information is rendered useless, which further scrambles the odds.

To be sure, the American prospects on the alpine team appear lean. But any statements about the U.S. Ski Team, no matter how its results are coming into the event, will likely include this standard disclaimer: "Don't count the Americans out." Even top European coaches, who do not regard the Americans as a serious skiing force, recognize the U.S. Ski Team as a viable wild card in any Olympic competition.

Knowing what I do about Olympic history, I'm steering clear of predictions, but I am confident of a few things: Whatever the results, those of us watching the Games on TV will see too much figure skating, plenty of the Picabo Street story, and not enough of the other U.S. skiers, who will be gunning full throttle on race day-when the slate is clean. And the winners will need a lot oftalent, a little luck, and, this year especially, some help from Mother Nature.

One person who won't be bothered by pre-race picks and pans is Tommy Moe, who was referred to as "no soaring success story" by Sports Illustrated just before winning two medals in Lillehammer. "The negative press got me fired up in '94," he recalls. Coming into Nagano, Moe has that 'already-got-my-gold' calm and a healthy attitude. "Every dog has his day, and it won't devastate me if I don't get a medal," says Moe. "But I'd love another one-you've got to be greedy."

At least two things are obvious after 1994: Have some faith in the home team, and smart money doesn't place Five-Circle bets.

SKI senior editor Edith Thys competed in the 1988 and 1992 Olympics. To see previous Racer eX columns, visit the Racer eX page on www.skimag.com.