Whistler, British Columbia – This one was big time.
After its first-ever Olympic medal last week, the U.S. Nordic Combined Team got the full treatment Tuesday, as sports journalists converged in hordes to watch Billy Demong, Johnny Spillane, Todd Lodwick, and Brett Camerota jump and ski their way to a second silver.
ESPN, Time Magazine, Sports Illustrated—all the major players showed up at Whistler Olympic Park to take in the event and relay the news to millions around the country. All the buzz reflects the sport’s newfound appeal to the American public, and it will give a big boost to a program that has labored on the fringes for its entire existence.
It’s not just the silver medals. It’s the years of hard work, the charismatic subjects, and the triumph (or near-triumph) of the underdog that make a recipe for a perfect narrative.
“It’s a great story,” said Sean Gregory, a staff writer for Time who was covering Tuesday’s race. “America has never done well in the sport, and their sudden success in the team event is great because it’s not just one guy—it’s the whole thing. I came into this thinking it would be exciting, and it was.”
The hardware and the media spotlight are no guarantee that nordic combined will end up with more funding from the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA) in coming years, especially given the state of the economy. But the TV time and photos splashed on front pages of USA Today’s web site sure don’t hurt, says John Farra, who oversees the program at USSA. He will go before his superiors in a few months with nearly six pounds of ammunition—the total weight of the five silver medals won by the nordic combined team here (one in the individual, and four in the relay).
“If there’s more money in the pot, I believe strongly that we can walk in there in the spring and make an argument that…we have a plan that shows we’re going to continue this success at the next Games,” Farra said. “I’m not fool enough to think that it’s going to absolutely help us, but it’s sure as hell better than the alternative.”
The ramifications don’t just come from the top down. They also come from the bottom up, as thousands (or at least hundreds) of potential future nordic combined skiers see the spotlight that could be in store for them.
At a recent local race, Demong said he handed out participation awards to more than 200 star-struck young athletes. Each of them wished him luck in Whistler, and will now get to soak in the team’s triumphs at the Games. Those youngsters now can see that a career in combined doesn’t mean consigning yourself to a lifetime of obscurity.
“What’s really exciting about some of the success we’ve had in the past, but especially now at the Olympics, is that these kids look at nordic sports as something that they can do not only to be on the U.S. Ski Team, but also to be Olympic medalists,” said Demong.
The question now is whether the strong American results and thrilling finishes of the two Olympic races thus far can actually sustain an interest that will extend all the way through the next four years, until the combined boys get another chance to gun for gold in Sochi.
It’s probably not reasonable to expect the New York Times to bring on a nordic correspondent. But the thrills inherent in the sport do make for good press, according to ESPN.com’s Jim Caple.
“The way they can show it now—rather than, ‘oh, they just go off into the woods and come back’—it is exciting. There’s a lot of strategy involved,” he said.
While no one’s going to go over to Europe and cover the World Cup, Caple said, the medals and exposure garnered by the Americans here have given the sport a platform to stand on for the next Olympics.
“That’s how you build it. You win some medals, people see what the event is, they hear the athletes, they hear their stories, and they gain some more respect,” he said. “It’s going to take some time, but they’re making a lot of progress.”
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.