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Hometown Olympics have U.S. on record run of medals

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) _ The cheers started with a freestyle skier from California, and they haven't stopped since.

Shannon Bahrke's silver in women's moguls, on the opening day of competition at the Salt Lake City Games, was the first medal in what has become a record-setting Olympics for the United States.

``Everyone, all these Americans, cheering for you,'' said Bahrke, from Tahoe City, Calif. ``I am so proud to be an American.''

Countries playing host to the Olympics often win more medals than usual, but what the Americans have done in the first Winter Games on U.S. soil in 22 years is truly amazing.

With three days remaining, U.S. athletes had won 28 medals, more than double their previous high of 13 set in 1994 in Lillehammer, Norway, and matched in 1998 in Nagano, Japan. The total through Thursday afternoon included nine golds, compared with the old mark of six, set four times.

The athletes couldn't be happier.

``They can just throw me in the desert and bury me,'' said Apolo Anton Ohno, who won a gold in short-track speedskating Wednesday night to add to a silver. ``I got a gold medal. I'm good now.''

The medal haul has been especially surprising because the U.S. Olympic Committee's goal was only 20. ``I'm just thrilled,'' USOC president Sandy Baldwin said.

The five medals won Wednesday were the most for a U.S. team on one day at any Winter Games. So were the three golds: Jimmy Shea and Tristan Gale in skeleton and Ohno.

If the United States gets one more medal it will break another record _ the biggest jump from one Winter Olympics to the next. Norway holds that mark with a 15-medal increase, from five medals in Calgary to 20 at the 1992 Albertville Winter Games.

At the Salt Lake City Games, Germany topped the medals chart with 32, 10 of them gold.

There are many reasons for the U.S. success. Money is a big one.

After winning just six medals, including two golds, at the 1988 Calgary Winter Games, the USOC appointed a panel led by New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner to find ways to improve. Its chief recommendations were to focus on medals and remember that in an Olympic era without the old amateurism rules, money talks.

The USOC, which fields Olympic teams and helps sports federations train athletes in between, makes more in sponsorship money when the games are at home.

To make the most of this opportunity, the USOC needed winning athletes. It started Podium 2002, a $40 million program aimed at finding gold, silver and bronze in the Salt Lake Valley. The amount more than doubled similar funding for the 1998 Nagano Winter Games.

``These were the no-excuses games,'' said Jim Page, the USOC's managing director for sports.

While Baldwin and other leaders publicly set a goal of 20 medals, Page predicted in an internal committee memo that the United States could win 27. With the women's hockey team playing Canada for the gold medal and Michelle Kwan leading the women's figure skating after the short program, Page's figure will be passed.

Included in the USOC's bankroll was almost $5 million in cash payments to athletes to cover training and living costs. The committee also boosted its bonus program for medal winners _ $25,000 for a gold, $15,000 for silver and $10,000 for bronze.

Even before Salt Lake City got the games, the USOC insisted on the construction of top-notch sports facilities. The Utah capital won and now is ringed by bobsled tracks, ski jumps and what is considered the fastest speedskating ice in the world.

American athletes were given priority for training time at those venues, and international competition was scheduled. Many, such as speedskating gold medalist Derek Parra, moved to Salt Lake City to take full advantage.

``We've done a lot of training on this course,'' Bahrke said of the moguls field at the Deer Valley resort. ``We've had World Cups, the Gold Cup, and training camps here. So I think that gave a huge advantage to us. But I think the biggest advantage is having my hometown fans here.''

Parra agreed that flag-waving crowds and first-class venues have been a huge boost.

``If you want,'' he said, a gold medal around his neck, ``we can always have the Olympics here.''
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