Sally Jenkins (c) 2014, The Washington Post.
SOCHI, Russia — The snow in the Caucasus Mountains is dissolving, the white patches shrinking, and many athletes on Team USA seem to be melting down with them. Some Americans are drained, and others are dragging. When they ski or they skate, they think they went fast, but then they look up at the clock and are stunned to find they were a second slow, and finish eighth. Team USA’s self-esteem is leaking away, and it’s triggering anxious super-secret coaching meetings and conspiracy theories. What’s in the Russian water table — and why are those Swiss timers so suspiciously slow?
It must be a plot — some foreign machination, causing this massive slippage. Four years ago in Vancouver, the Americans won more medals than anyone, with 37, but halfway through Sochi, the 13 medals they have won somehow don’t feel quite as memorable as the ones they let get away. They can’t win so much as a foiled chocolate in speedskating, where they’ve yet to finish any better than seventh. U.S. speedskating coach Ryan Shimabukuro said: “The fact that we’re that far out, something’s up.”
“It’s a mystery to me,” skater Brian Hansen said. “I think it’s a mystery to a lot of people.”
A mystery! At least that’s something for the American television audience to grab on to, because there is precious little suspense otherwise, save for the matter of when Bob Costas will return from his eye infection, and that’s a dodgy matter too. Who or what is poisoning us?
What accounts for this? Ted Ligety was the gold medal favorite in Friday’s super combined, yet he finished 12th, while Bode Miller was sixth, both of them shooting up huge rooster-tails of snow, futilely.
The results are . . . odd. What is this weird eighth-place niche the Americans keep falling into? Julia Mancuso, eighth. Miller, eighth. Two-time gold medalist speedskater Shani Davis, eighth in the men’s 1,000 meters, while Dutchman Stefan Groothuis was taken aback to win. (“It’s great, but it’s also very strange,” Groothuis said.) Women’s speedskater Heather Richardson, world champion in the 500 meters? Eighth again. Silver medalist Olga Fatkulina was so stunned by the result that she put on someone else’s warmups. “(I’m wearing somebody else’s tracksuit trousers, and I have to give them back,” she said. “I don’t know whose they are.”)
Let’s play detective and go over the likely suspects. Four potential culprits come to mind immediately:
1. Vodka: The little shooters are ubiquitous in the restaurants, in flavors from cranberry to horseradish.
2. Embarrassment: The shoulder-curling humiliation of those snowflaky Ralph Lauren sweaters the Americans had to wear in the Opening Ceremonies.
3. Toxins: Leached into the Americans either environmentally or intentionally; and, of course . . .
4. Sex in the Athletes’ Village.
“We could make a list of everything that’s wrong, it could be the suits, could be the food, we don’t know,” speedskater Joey Mantia said.
The food! Maybe it was the food. Too many dumplings? Too much shashlik, those tasty Russian kebab skewers, too many khinkali dumplings, or khachapuri, the Danish-shaped cheese tarts.
Could it be? But no. When snowboarder Hannah Teter was asked what she has been snacking on, she delivered a grocery list straight from an organic health food store. “I’ve got kale chips, sprouted nuts, electrolyte drinks — all the healthy stuff, all the super-food,” she said.
If it wasn’t the food, maybe it was the clothes. The growing collective neurosis over the lack of medals coalesced around the speedskaters’ racing skins, those high-tech Under Armour-Lockheed dimpled racing unis. They came under intense examination Friday, when coaches and team members began to obsess on whether air vents on the back were design flaws that might be slowing them down. The Case of the Fractional Aerodynamic Hoodie. A seamstress was called in.
But the suits were not why American champions were slower by a second — unless they were catching their skate blades on the hems and tripping.
“Shani has won in the same suit,” Mantia said. “All speed suits feel like crap.”
Nevertheless at Friday’s training sessions, there were emergency conferences and whispers of more alterations.
“There is a meeting later today about some stuff I have no idea about,” Davis said.
But what if there was no culprit, nothing to blame except themselves, and the weather? What if the Americans trained for a Winter Olympics at altitude on hard-packed snow and ice, and arrived in Sochi to find they should have trained for an Early March First Buds of Spring Olympics at sea level?
As the temperatures hovered between 60 and 65 degrees, Sochi became a giant tanning parlor and everyone was breaking out their Maui Jims. The balmy air grew heavier down on the coastal plain where the speedskaters competed, while up in the peaks, the snowcaps liquefied. The surface of the Alpine courses looked as if they’d been poured out of a Slush Puppie machine. Miller, the famous snow chemist, described it as grainy “crystals, mushy stuff.”
The Americans weren’t the only ones who gave marginally slower performances in the warmth, or who were frustrated by sloggy conditions. “I’m a big guy and I just sink in this slush,” British cross-country skier Andrew Young said. A German official grabbed scissors and cut the sleeves off some of the cross-country uniforms, but it didn’t help former World Cup champion Axel Teichmann, who finished eighth in the men’s 15K.
“I became a winter athlete to do my sport in winter, not in summer,” he seethed.
Maybe it was the sheer beachiness of the whole affair that compromised the Americans.
“It’s easy to lose a sense of time and structure in the Olympic Village,” figure skater Jeremy Abbott said. “It feels like summer camp. Like Neverland.”
Maybe things were just too dreamy. “Wishing in skiing does not get you far,” Miller observed. Maybe while the Americans were puzzling over their suits and their food and the temps, others have just reached out and grabbed the medals. Like Iouri Podladtchikov, nicknamed I-Pod, who made this immortal play on the Olympic slogan after beating out Shaun White in the halfpipe, “It’s hot, cool, and it’s [expletive] mine.”