GANGNEUNG, South Korea — Let’s be clear: We, the people of the United States of America, are not good at biathlon. We are some 323 million strong. Even if we bicker and brawl with each other with increasing and alarming regularity, it would figure we could, collectively, find one strapping young woman or man who might enjoy not only skiing across rolling hills with a gun strapped to her/his back, but also firing that gun at targets such that she/he might, in one particular quadrennial, be among the three best in the world.
And yet, it has never happened. There have been 225 Olympic medals issued in biathlon. Americans have won none of them.
This, however, is not about biathlon.
We’re not yet a week into the PyeongChang Winter Games, and we know a few things. Americans are good at strapping a plank to their feet and flipping over their heads. Canadians are good at pushing a stone across a sheet of ice and using a broom to sweep it into position. Norwegians are good at skiing, particularly if the terrain is flat — or even uphill. South Koreans are good at speedskating, but really only if the track is short, not long. The Dutch are good at speedskating, but really only if the track is long, not short.
Some of this is natural. (It’s cold and snowy in Norway. Canada has lots of ice and beer. Etc.) But it’s hard to escape the notion that some of it is contrived, too. And it leaves you with the distinct feeling that all medals are not created equal.
Some disclaimers: We cannot expect all nations, even all snowy nations, to be equally good at all Winter Olympic sports. The Dutch have a longstanding passion for speedskating — the traditional, Eric Heiden-style version — and so they will bring their bands and their beers and their orange hats and clothes to that venue and — how to put this? — go absolutely loony for their sport. Even Tuesday night, Kjeld Nuis and Patrick Roest went gold-silver for the Netherlands in the men’s 1,500 meters. And so it goes. There have been 12 medals issued at these Olympics across four long-track speedskating events. Dutch skaters have won eight of them, including all four golds.
The list of speedskaters who qualify as national heroes in Holland — Sven Kramer, Ireen Wust, on and on — seems more than 1,000 meters long. Same for cross-country skiers in Norway (Bjorn Daehlie, Marit Bjorgen, etc.) and short-track speedskaters in South Korea (Park Seung-hi, even the former Ahn Hyun-soo, who left to compete for Russia as Viktor Ahn).
But here’s where that contrived feeling seeps in, and we’ll use Korea to demonstrate, not to denigrate. Two out of the three endeavors mentioned above are of historical significance and trace back to the athletic history of a nation. The medal-winning ways of the Netherlands in speedskating date from 1952. Thorlief Haug won two golds for Norway in cross-country skiing at the first Winter Olympics back in 1924.
South Korea, on the other hand, is a short-track power by choice, not by tradition — though, after a quarter of a century of success, you could argue their tradition is now ingrained. But when Kim Ki-hoon won the 1,000-meter race at the 1992 Albertville Olympics, South Korea had no history in Olympic short-track racing because short-track racing had no history in the Olympics.
Before Kim’s win, South Korea had never won a single medal at the Winter Olympics. Now, they have 53 — 42 in short track, by far the most of any nation.
There’s nothing wrong with this. It’s their prerogative to pursue a sport, and the South Koreans’ pursuit of short-track speedskating helped the country land these Olympics that are being held in the mountains a couple of hours from Seoul. It’s not a stretch to think: No success in short-track, no Winter Olympics for South Korea.
And in a way, that could connect us to snowboarding and to Chloe Kim, to snowboarding in the United States. Much like short-track speedskating, snowboarding wasn’t even full-fledged a sport in the 1980s. It had to be invented, and it was invented in the U.S. — nurtured in Vermont and New England to start, but then spreading west to the point where a California kid such as Kim could find it cool.
So once snowboarding became part of the Olympic program in 1998, the U.S. was far ahead of other countries, and remains there still. Not only are the Americans’ only three golds thus far in PyeongChang in snowboarding — from Kim, Red Gerard and Jamie Anderson — but the U.S. has just two medals in all the other sports combined, at least as of close of business Tuesday in Korea.
Because the snowboarding fields at the Olympics are limited to four athletes per country in each discipline, the strength of the competition here is hindered, or worse. The fifth- or sixth-best American almost certainly would be a bigger threat to end up on the podium than, say, the fourth-best from Australia.
When American legend Kelly Clark sat on the edge of being eliminated from advancing to finals in the halfpipe competition Monday, the sport’s aficionados could scan down the rest of the start list and determine that only two of the remaining competitors had even a chance to pass her. She looked to be in peril. But she was safe. The field is tilted — toward the U.S.
And this doesn’t even get to, say, women’s hockey. As I’ve mentioned before, there have been 10 gold and silver medals issued in that sport in Olympic history. The U.S. and Canada have won nine of them. The two powers are due to meet Thursday, and each is 2-0 to start this tournament. The combined score of their “matches”: 17-2.
At least part of the appeal of the Olympics — of sports, really — is unpredictability. We already have some tales of that here: America’s Chris Madzder’s silver in luge stands out. But there is also a complex formula of tradition, funding, commitment and history that, at least in some events, cuts out half the Olympic field before competition even begins.
Are all medals created equal? It certainly doesn’t feel that way. That American medal in biathlon, if and when it ever comes, seems like it would be worth more.