PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — The U.S. Olympic team will leave Pyeongchang with its lowest medal haul in 20 years — a number even worse than it looks because of all the new, American-friendly sports that have been added to the program over the past two decades.
The U.S. team went into the final day of action Sunday with 23 medals and an outside chance at one more. It will be the poorest showing since 1998, four years before a home Olympics in Salt Lake City sparked a renaissance for the country’s winter sports program.
Alan Ashley, the U.S. Olympic Committee’s chief of sport performance, wasn’t shirking from the bad result.
“We’re going to take a hard look at what occurred here,” he said Sunday at the USOC’s closing news conference.
Ashley was joined at the news conference by four U.S. medalists, including Lindsey Vonn, who a few days earlier gave an impassioned plea to not judge everything by the numbers of medals collected.
“To quantify it in how many medals you have is not appropriate and doesn’t respect the athletes and what they’ve put in to be in these games,” she said.
But Ashley acknowledged there was plenty of room for improvement, and promised to break down what went wrong when he returns home.
“Everything we’re responsible for, and everything that is basically under my responsibility, is focused on how to help our top athletes achieve success,” he said. “I’m accountable for that, and I’m not going to shy away from that.”
He also said he derived hope from the 35 athletes who finished fourth through sixth over the two-plus weeks in South Korea.
“It’s not as though we were in these situations where you’re saying, ‘Oh, we’re going to do this great achievement,’ and then we were 20th, 40th, 70th, whatever,’” he said.
But the USOC certainly expected more.
An internal document obtained by The Associated Press set a target goal of 37 medals, with a minimum of 25. Team USA will reach neither number.
Eleven of the U.S. medals came from snowboarding and freestyle skiing, events that were added beginning in 1992 and have played a large part in a near doubling of medals up for grabs at the games. Many of the newer events are skewed toward North American athletes, and it’s no surprise that the U.S. started vaulting up the medals table in 2002, when it won 34, buoyed by a U.S. sweep on the men’s halfpipe in Park City.
That year, Team USA took 14.5 percent of the medals available. This year, it’s projected to take 7.5 percent.
The U.S. headed into Sunday with 12 medals in events that existed before freestyle and snowboarding. That’s one fewer than in 1998, but still double the total of 1988. After those games, Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, who was vice chairman of the USOC, issued a report that called for the federation to focus more on winning medals.
These days, the USOC spends more than $60 million during an Olympic cycle to support winter athletes and their sports organizations. Since Ashley took over, more emphasis has been placed on funneling the money more toward sports that have medal hopes as opposed to developing pipelines for less-successful sports to grow.
Ashley said he’ll look at everything, including seeing what the USOC might emulate from countries that have had more success this year. Norway had 38 medals coming into Sunday, breaking the Winter Olympics record of 37, set by the United States in 2010. Germany had 30, and Canada, which started its “Own the Podium” program before the Vancouver Games, had 29.
All are helped with funding from their government. The USOC is not.
“I want to help our athletes achieve everything they’re capable of,” Ashley said. “We come here to compete. Everyone can do predictions. And if we just live with predictions, then I guess we don’t need to go to the Olympics.”