Every two years, the Olympics give Americans a chance to feel good about themselves. In the summer, U.S. swimmers and track stars consistently reign superior — and its gymnasts are usually right there, too. The American basketball team, now borrowed from the NBA, often seems like it could sleep through the first half and still coast past most of the other countries. Because of this, the U.S. has finished atop the medal table for every Summer Games since 1996.
In the winter, the U.S. has grown accustomed to a similar degree of success, albeit not with nearly the same level of global domination. Since the U.S. hosted the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City, the Americans have finished no lower than second on the medal table, with the 2010 Vancouver Games providing a high-water mark of 37 medals. So far in Pyeongchang, Team USA has won eight medals through Thursday, and five of those medals were golden.
But for anybody old enough to remember the Cold War, American success in the winter may seem a little odd. For decades, the U.S. was pretty, well, meh — never bad enough to get shut out, but more often than not looking up at the Soviets, Austrians and Norwegians. So what changed? The answer is obvious: It’s flying through the air, performing a chicken salad or a double Michalchuk.
Since the 1990s, Americans have retained their stranglehold on sports you might see in a Mountain Dew ad. Freestyle skiing aerials were introduced in the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, and snowboarding came along four years later in Nagano, Japan — with more individual events added in these sports each winter cycle.
From 1994 to 2014, the U.S. racked up 34 medals in those two disciplines, 18 of which came on the halfpipe alone.1 The U.S. has been on the same track so far in South Korea. A pair of 17-year-olds named Chloe Kim and Red Gerard — who claimed Olympic gold in women’s halfpipe and men’s slopestyle, respectively — have been the emerging stars. Shaun White, meanwhile, avenged his forgettable performance in Sochi and returned to the top of the men’s halfpipe podium; Jamie Anderson snagged a gold in women’s slopestyle; and Arielle Gold stood next to teammate Kim on the halfpipe podium, a bronze slung around her neck.
With those five freestyle medals in the bag, Team USA is well on its way to matching the 11 it won in Sochi. But even when you get away from the halfpipe, the U.S. has capitalized on other newly introduced events as well, such as two-woman bobsled, women’s ice hockey and skeleton.2
|Freestyle skiing||Men’s slopestyle||3||3||100.0%|
|Figure skating||Team trophy||2||6||33.3|
|Freestyle skiing||Men’s halfpipe||1||3||33.3|
|Freestyle skiing||Women’s halfpipe||1||3||33.3|
|Freestyle skiing||Women’s slopestyle||1||3||33.3|
|Nordic combined||Individual large hill/10km||2||6||33.3|
|Snowboarding||Men’s snowboard cross||3||12||25.0|
|Short track speedskating||Men’s 1,500m||3||15||20.0|
|Freestyle skiing||Men’s aerials||3||18||16.7|
|Short track speedskating||Men’s 500m||2||18||11.1|
|Snowboarding||Women’s snowboard cross||1||9||11.1|
|Speedskating||Men’s team pursuit||1||9||11.1|
|Snowboarding||Men’s parallel giant slalom||1||12||8.3|
|Snowboarding||Women’s parallel giant slalom||1||12||8.3|
|Freestyle skiing||Women’s aerials||1||18||5.6|
|Short track speedskating||Women’s 1,000m||1||18||5.6|
|Biathlon||Mass start men||0||9||0.0|
|Biathlon||Mass start women||0||9||0.0|
|Biathlon||Women’s 4×6 relay||0||9||0.0|
|Cross-country skiing||Men’s sprint||0||15||0.0|
|Cross-country skiing||Men’s team sprint||0||9||0.0|
|Cross-country skiing||Women’s sprint||0||15||0.0|
|Cross-country skiing||Women’s team sprint||0||9||0.0|
|Freestyle skiing||Men’s ski cross||0||6||0.0|
|Freestyle skiing||Women’s ski cross||0||6||0.0|
|Short track speedskating||Women’s 1,500m||0||12||0.0|
|Ski jumping||Women’s individual normal hill||0||6||0.0|
|Snowboarding||Men’s parallel slalom||0||3||0.0|
|Snowboarding||Women’s parallel slalom||0||3||0.0|
|Speedskating||Women’s team pursuit||0||9||0.0|
We really only have to go back to Sochi 2014 to see how this has affected the medal table. In Russia, Team USA won 28 medals, which was roughly 10 percent of the total medals awarded that year — just one behind the Russians for the overall lead.3 But if you were to eliminate events that were introduced in Lillehammer ’94 and beyond, the Americans would have finished with just 11 medals, or roughly 7 percent of the total medals awarded that year in those longer-term sports.
With their medals in X-Games sports, Team USA were very nearly on top of the Winter Olympics world in 2014. Without those medals, they would have finished in a relatively pedestrian tie for sixth place.
Look at Team USA’s overall performances from 1964 through 1992, and this follows: They finished in the top five in terms of overall medals only twice in eight tries. Calgary ’88 was a low point — American athletes won just six medals. But all that mediocrity has been flipped on its head as the list of events grows.
It should be said that the big air crowd aren’t the only American athletes responsible for this recent stretch of Winter Olympic team success (or who’ve benefited from events added to the games in the past three decades): Speedskaters like Apolo Anton Ohno and Shani Davis have had brilliant careers, and their achievements on ice also helped to augment Team USA’s recent medal hauls.
To be sure, more traditional Winter Olympians like skiers Ted Ligety, Lindsey Vonn and Mikaela Shiffrin — and their predecessors like Tommy Moe, Picabo Street and Bode Miller — have assured that Team USA remains a threat in the Alpine events. The Americans aren’t exactly Austrians on the slopes, but they’re not exactly Bulgarians, either. But outside of the Alpine realm, don’t expect the Americans to impress in the more historic events: They’ve captured just one medal each in curling, ski jumping and cross-country skiing, and they’ve won exactly zero medals in biathlon.
The cynical take is that this stuff looks really good on TV, and it’s all a big ratings grab for NBC, which has owned the U.S. broadcasting rights for the Winter Olympics since 2002. Whatever the impetus for adding new sports, and especially new extreme sports, the Americans continue to capitalize. It should be noted here that Canada has had a similar windfall: While the U.S. has totaled 64 medals in the events introduced in 1994 and beyond,4 Canada has captured 55.
The Americans aren’t at the top of the medal table right now, but they still have events like ski aerials, ski slopestyle, ski halfpipe and the debut event of snowboarding big air — the most X-Games-y of X-Games-y sports — so there are plenty more opportunities to do what they do best. Now if only they could figure out how to slide a rock across a narrow sheet of ice toward a bullseye, they’d really be onto something.