KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – Following the third podium sweep in United States Winter Olympics history, a group of about half a dozen 20-somethings broke into an impromptu version of the "Star-Spangled Banner." It was awful and beautiful at the same time, an homage to tone-deafness and patriotism. After gold, silver and bronze medals in the new sport of slopestyle skiing, 23-year-old Tom O'Connor and his friends couldn't help themselves.
"We are just dominating these freestyle sports, and I think it's awesome," said O'Connor, a fan from suburban Buffalo. "It's really our sport."
If not for these freestyle sports – or action sports or extreme sports or whatever you want to call them, so long as you call them sports, which, yes, they are – the United States would be Switzerland. It would be Slovenia, population 2 million. It would be a country with four medals, not 12.
Yes, eight of the United States' dozen medals in the Sochi Games have come from slopestyle and halfpipe events. Half their medals didn't even exist four years ago in Vancouver. And three-quarters have come in events introduced since the turn of the millennium.
"Go America," said 22-year-old Joss Christensen, newly minted slopestyle skiing gold medalist, in the aftermath of his victory. Among Christensen, Gus Kenworthy (silver) and Nick Goepper (bronze), slopestyle skiing single-handedly raised the U.S. medal account by 33 percent and pushed it into second place on the medal table, behind only Norway. All four U.S. golds came in action-sports disciplines, as did both of its silvers.
Depending on one's interpretation, this says a few things about the United States' Olympic program.
1) Team USA is super gnarly. This is unquestionable.
2) Team USA is the beneficiary of events it invented. This, too, is unquestionable.
3) Team USA is awful at everything but the super gnarly events it invented. This is what we soon will learn, and it will give us a far better idea where the United States finishes in the Sochi Games.
So far, all of four bronze medals have come from sports with traditional Winter Olympics roots: Julia Mancuso in super combined, Hannah Kearney in moguls, Erin Hamlin in luge and the new team figure-skating competition. That's it. Bode Miller imploded in the downhill. Mancuso did the same. Shani Davis forgot the speed part of speedskating. The U.S. curling teams do not rock.
[Related: USA sweeps podium in men's slopestyle skiing]
The new sports, on the other hand, can't stop winning. The U.S. booked gold in men's ski slopestyle, men's snowboard slopestyle and women's snowboard slopestyle. Lest you think they were no good in women's ski slopestyle, they locked down a silver there, too. Their overall haul would've been even better had they mustered a medal in men's snowboard halfpipe, which seemed a certainty until Shaun White's messy pair of runs, but they made up for that goose egg with a pair of women's snowboard halfpipe medals.
"I mean, we invented the sports," said Mike Jaquet, the chief marketing officer for the U.S. Ski and Snowboarding Association. "We should do something."
Jaquet isn't trying to be flip. He's just telling the truth: The U.S. does have a massive advantage when it spends years cultivating a sports scene beneath the radar, then foists it on an Olympic movement more than happy to bring up any sport that brings down its average viewer's age.
It would be a far bigger story if Americans weren't destroying the competition. As halfpipe skier Aaron Blunck said, Team USA has the "most facilities, most coaching, the most staff." And even if action-sports athletes from other countries spend most of their time in the United States – women's snowboard halfpipe silver medalist Torah Bright, for example, lives in Utah – the U.S. infrastructure puts its athletes at a distinct advantage.
"In X Games, if all three of these guys would have taken the podium, nobody would've been like, 'Oh my God, USA took the podium,' " Canadian skier Alex Beaulieu-Marchand said. "They're all individuals. They skied super good. At the Olympics, it's based on country. I don't think it really matters for us."
It certainly matters for the U.S. Sure, they've still got Ted Ligety and Mikaela Shiffrin and bobsledding and men's hockey and women's figure skating, plenty of opportunities to pad the medal total. Ultimately, though, that onus may fall on the sports at which Olympic purists continue to scoff.
The action-sports community still begrudges Bob Costas for calling slopestyle a "Jackass" sport. (Karma, apparently, strikes via pink eye.) It tries to shrug off the idea that all of its athletes are perpetually stoned, even if they look it. It embraces Sage Kotsenburg's lost-in-translation language and Jamie Anderson's love of yoga and healing crystals and beads.
[Photos: Emotional Olympic celebrations]
Instead of minimizing accomplishments because of the sports' age, fans like O'Connor celebrate Christensen overcoming his father's death and parlaying a coaches' discretionary pick into gold. They smile at Kenworthy wanting to bring home stray puppies with his silver. They marvel at Goepper growing up near a 300-foot slope in Lawrenceburg, Ind., and mastering his craft on soaped-up PVC piping in his backyard.
Too many people in the United States continue to adopt Costas' attitude, which is equal parts ignorant and arrogant. Simply because a sport isn't yours, because it isn't something familiar, does not make it any less of a sport.
Just ask Team USA.
Without action sports, it's no better than teeny, tiny Slovenia.
- Sports & Recreation
- United States
- Team USA