Foundation for U.S. medal haul laid in Nagano

By Allan Dowd

VANCOUVER (Reuters) - U.S. Olympic officials are giving some credit for the country's leading medal haul at the Vancouver Olympics to its poor showing at the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano.

Heading into Sunday's light day of competition before the closing ceremony, American athletes have 36 medals, more than any other country and a vast improvement from the 13 they took home from Japan.

The results in Nagano prompted soul-searching by the U.S. Olympic Committee and sports federations over how the country should support and prepare its winter athletes.

"I think the programs we put in place after Nagano are having an impact on us today," said Scott Blackmun, chief executive of the U.S. Olympic Committee.

The committee and sponsors have since increased spending on training and research to develop and support athletes in sports where the United States had traditionally been weak.

Nordic Combined gold medalist Bill Demong said the attitude of the entire U.S. Olympic Team is far different from Nagano.

"I think in Nagano we felt like we were a small country at the Olympic Games ... we felt like we were outsiders at the Winter Olympics," Demong told reporters.

"Now we're here to win, and there are a lot of guys and gals from the United States who feel very comfortable in their sports among their competitors."

The U.S. committee never publicly disclosed a target for the number of medals they expected to win this year, but said they have exceeded their expectations. Its previous highest medal tally was 34, set in Salt Lake City.

(Reporting Allan Dowd, Editing Frank Pingue)