Posted: 7:06 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014
By Rodger Sherman
The rest of the world caught up and surpassed America in every sport in Sochi, but America won in some sports the rest of the world hadn't heard of yet. Sorry, y'all: we innovate.
We've heard much about the American disappointments in Sochi.
America's speed skating team had bad suits, or maybe they just weren't good. America's women's hockey team blew a last-second chance at gold in a heartbreaking overtime loss. America's men's hockey team got everybody's hopes up, then crashed out and missed the podium. America's curling teams were in near-last place. Shaun White didn't compete in one event and didn't medal in the one he did compete in. Basically any person you saw in an ad running up to the Olympics -- White, Shani Davis, Gracie Gold -- did not do what those ads implied they would do.
But America still found itself near the top of the medal count, earning 28, the second-most of any country.
(An aside: Thousands and thousands and thousands of people tweeted @SBNation about the fact that our medal tracker counted overall medals instead of gold medals, which is not how the IOC tracks medals, which counts by gold medals with silver/bronze as tiebreakers. These people made two critical mistakes: assuming we didn't know that the IOC counts differently than us, and assuming we cared even the slightest bit. What would be cool is if there was a weighted 3-2-1 count, but that wouldn't actually tell anybody anything.)
Because amidst the disappointments and less-than-stellar finishes in all the sports we knew about, America dominated the sports we didn't know existed: a podium sweep in men's slopestyle skiing, golds in men's and women's ski halfpipe and men's and women's slopestyle snowboarding.
Of the 98 medal events contested at the 2014 Winter Olympics, 12 were new. These 12 events accounted for nine of America's 28 medals, which is already disproportionate. But more notably, they accounted for five of America's nine golds.
No other country won more than five medals in these 12 events or more than two golds. Without these events, the United States would have fallen from the second-most overall medals to fifth, and from fourth in the gold medal count into eighth.
A cynic would point to this and say that the United States is lazy. America couldn't get good at the real Winter Olympic sports, so it pushed events it knew it could win into existence so it could go home with some golds.
I'm not a cynic though: I'm a true-blooded American. And where you see illegitimacy, I see innovation. I respect our hustle, and endeavor to cast America as LEADERS OF OLYMPIC IMPROVEMENT.
You probably discovered something over the past few weeks: The Winter Olympics are, well, kinda boring. While the Summer Olympics are a parade of sports and games we're all familiar with mixed in with some outlying weird ones, the Winter Olympics are widely inaccessible. It's 14 ways to get down a mountain the fastest, plus a few ways to get across ice or snow.
We respect the stoic, lonesome dedication of Winter Olympians, who spend months and years luging/skiing/ski jumping down a hill, then taking a lift back to the top, and repeating, searching for places they can be slightly more aerodynamic, to shave a hundredth of a second or gain an extra meter.
We also don't enjoy watching many of the sports. We connect well with people vs. people, but we don't connect well with people vs. clocks, televisions asking us to cheer for a racer being in the green rather than the red.
But that's what the Winter Olympics offers, and always has. The sports offered in the original 1924 Winter Olympics in Chamonix fall into the category of Sports NBC Generally Thought Were Too Boring For You to Watch: Besides figure skating and ice hockey, there was biathlon, bobsled, cross-country skiing, ski jumping, Nordic Combined (cross-country skiing AND ski jumping) curling (which was discontinued from 1928 until 1998) and speed skating -- mind you, not the fun one where people race against each other, but the one with two people and a stopwatch.
Sports that have been added to the Olympics since, say, the 1960s tend to be a bit edgier. Short-track speed skating, added in 1992, is the crashier version of regular speed skating, less about graceful strides and more about jostling past your competition. Skeleton, added in 2002, is like luge and bobsled, but head-first.
And then there are the extreme sports: Freestyle skiing, added in 1992, is skiing with tricks. Snowboarding, added in 1998, is, well, snowboarding. The IOC surely realizes that these types of sports boost youth interest in the old-timey Olympics worldwide.
America's five golds in new events each came in added wrinkles on the two extreme disciplines: slopestyle, for both skiers and snowboarders, which is a hill with several large jumps and some rails to do tricks on, and ski halfpipe, the familiar halfpipe course with skiers on it.
It makes sense that America would do well in these sports. We invented them, in the same way Scandinavia invented biathlon and still wins. Flips and spins and tricks excite us more than fractions of seconds, so we made sports with 'em.
Also, via ESPN and the X Games, we invented the sporting event that springboarded these sports' legitimacy. Stuff like slopestyle invaded our primetime lineups while other countries had never heard of it. So, yeah, America was in the driver's seat for gold.
But as new events get more and more ingrained in the Olympic repertoire, the rest of the world catches up. Just look at the other freestyle skiing/snowboarding events: In the 12 previously extant freestyle medal events in those categories, the United States won just four medals -- one gold, three bronzes. On the other hand, they won eight medals and five golds in the six new events.
So, yeah: Either intentionally or not, America did lean on new sports to boost its medal total.
But someday, those new sports will seem familiar, and other countries will probably find themselves on America's level. I don't know what new sports are on the table for the 2018 Olympics, but I wouldn't be surprised if the United States has found new ways of flying, flipping, and landing with gold.