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Vancouver 2010: The American Olympiad

There’s always a large swath of the American public that takes little interest in the Olympic Games. Some haven’t the time to follow them; others are irked because “30 Rock” and “The Office” go on a two-week hiatus. Many simply don’t care.

For those who do give a hoot, the 21st Olympiad was pretty cool, no pun intended (particularly considering the downright balmy temperatures that hung over Vancouver for the bulk of the Games).

With the 30th anniversary of the “Miracle on Ice” serving as a motivational backdrop, American hockey sliced its way back into the national conversation. US skiers carved out stories of redemption (Bode Miller) and overcoming adversity (Lindsey Vonn) while cutting up the slopes of Whistler Creekside. Shaun White soared, American bobsledders slid and Apolo Ohno skated into the annals of history.

Overall, by capturing an Olympic-record 37 medals, Team America owned the winter podium for only the second time ever, and first on foreign soil.

Oh yeah, and Stephen Colbert was there too.

30 years after “The Miracle”, there was nearly another

Only history will determine how the 2010 US Hockey team is remembered. Even now it’s a matter of perspective. Did they earn a silver medal or lose a gold? It’s obvious which answer players would give, but they are competitors. There is no tougher second-place to accept in sport than Olympic silver in hockey. Especially when you scratch and claw back from a 2-0 deficit to tie the gold medal game with 24 seconds left against a team of behemoths on their home ice, as the Americans did in what became a truly seismic tilt, on this continent at least.

Hopefully, at some point, the players will be able step away from the moment that slipped away and appreciate what they accomplished.

Before Sidney Crosby, the poster boy of these Olympics and the sport itself, found the goal a little more than seven minutes into overtime, Team USA had won every game it played, including a 5-3 victory over Canada in the group stage that sent the alert level of the host nation to red.

While Team Canada boasted nine of the 30 NHL captains, including the entire front line of the San Jose Sharks, the league’s second-best team, the Americans were built almost in the spirit of the 1980 Miracle squad: young, physical and vibrant. They may not have finished the job like their Lake Placid counterparts, but tournament MVP Ryan Miller, Zach Parise, Jack Johnson and the rest of the unlikely almost-champs put hockey back on the map in this country.

Day 1 and Day 14: Swings that helped secure the medal count

Perennial winter powerhouse Germany finished seven behind the USA in the final medal count, with 30. That difference could have been far more tenuous, had it not been for two defining events.

Day 1: Men’s 1,500 meter short-track race. Coming into the final turn, Koreans were poised to sweep the medals until Ho-Suk Lee attempted to pass his teammate Si-Bak Sung, causing both to crash and paving the way for a pair of Americans, Apolo Ohno and J.R. Celski, to steal silver and bronze. A huge four-medal swing on the first evening of competition.

Day 14: Women’s Bobsled. The Germans, notorious for their recent domination of the bobsled events, were left off the podium after Germany 2 – leaders after two runs – crashed on its third run, allowing USA 2 to snag an unlikely bronze. That two-medal swing enabled the US to widen its overall lead to 28-24, a lead it would not relinquish.

Alpine-racing torch passed from Austrians to Americans

By far the biggest cumulative surprise of the Games was the US Alpine team stealing the thunder of the Austrians.

Three Americans – Bode Miller, Lindsey Vonn and Julia Mancuso – made repeat trips to the podium. Along with Andrew Weibrecht’s bronze in super-G, the US team compiled a remarkable haul of eight medals, three more than their total from the Nagano, Salt Lake City and Torino Games combined. The Austrians, who racked up a whopping 34 medals during the same time period, were held to four in Vancouver.

That doesn’t even include an utterly bizarre incident in the women’s giant slalom, when Vonn crashed and Mancuso, already on the course as the next racer with Vonn still immobilized, was yellow-flagged and halted halfway down as a precaution. A favorite to take gold in the event, Mancuso finished 18th after the re-done first run, her emotional state and overall focus visibly altered, along with the course itself considering she had to wait another 15 racers to go.

Despite the unfortunate/unacceptable occurrence, it was nonetheless an historic two weeks in the mountains north of Vancouver for the American downhillers.

Colbert Nation in Vancouver: Splendid entertainment

For those who missed it, US Speedskating was in dire straits after losing its main sponsor, the bankrupt Dutch bank DSB.  Facing a funding shortfall of $300,000, Stephen Colbert used his “Nation” to bankroll the team, and in return was given an honorary spot on the team as the designated “assistant sports psychologist”.

Weaving the access into an overall package he deemed “Exclusive Vancouverage of the Quadrennial Cold Weather Athletic Competition” (so as not to upset NBC and its stranglehold on coverage rights), Colbert bummed his way around the Olympic Village, gained interviews with the likes of Vonn, Shani Davis and even Bob Costas, and of course, diligently fulfilled his duties as the assistant shrink to “his” athletes.

Let me be the first to say it: London 2012 needs Colbert.  Here’s to hoping the US Swim team was sponsored by Bear Stearns.