Gold? Bronze? Olympic “success” depends on the athlete (among other things)

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KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – Steven Holcomb’s bronze-medal celebration Monday night brought to mind a vivid memory — his gold-medal celebration from four years ago.

“About the same,” Holcomb said of a boisterous fist-pumping, man-hugging reaction. “We didn’t even make it to the finish, and we were getting hounded by our teammates.”

Gold in one event one year. Bronze in another event four years later. The medals were different, but the celebrations were about the same.

Both were incredible achievements by Holcomb, who has now won Olympic and world medals in both the two- and four-man competitions. He is a trailblazer.

VIDEO: Watch Team USA’s bronze-medal run

He’s also a reminder that the definition of success at an Olympics is layered and largely brought on by subjective perception and expectation. The medal standings are growing with importance as the Games go through the final week.

What will make for a “successful” Olympics for the U.S.?

  • Winning more medals than Vancouver, when Americans took 37 of them, the most ever for one nation at a Winter Games?
  • Winning the overall medal count for the first time at a non-North American Winter Games?

It’s a nuanced question. First, let’s look at Holcomb.

  • He held onto bronze by .03 of a second after the fourth and final run in teeth-chattering conditions at the Sanki Sliding Center.
  • Holcomb, with brakeman Steve Langton, ended a 62-year U.S. Bobsled drought for the second straight Olympics.
  • In 2010, he became the first American to win four-man gold since 1948.
  • In 2014, he became the first American to win a two-man medal of any color since 1952.
  • Not only is Holcomb the reigning Olympic four-man champion, he also entered these Games as the season-long World Cup champion in the two-man.

“I don’t have any Olympic medals in two-man, so to finally come away with a bronze, I’ll take gold, silver, bronze,” he said. “We were just here to win a medal. I know we were the gold-medal favorites coming in.”

Pause right there. Gold-medal favorites. The Associated Press and Infostrada tapped Holcomb for two-man gold. Sports Illustrated picked him for silver.

WATCH: Holcomb, Langton make U.S. history in bobsled

Olympic medal predictions don’t have high success rates, but Holcomb knew the perception was there that he had a shot at gold.

Holcomb clarified, saying he didn’t consider himself the gold-medal favorite because talented Russian Aleksandr Zubkov had a home-track advantage, enough of an edge to make up for the fact he ranked well behind Holcomb in the World Cup standings.

In bobsled, track experience is critical. Holcomb dominates in places like Lake Placid, N.Y., and Park City, Utah, where he’s taken more runs than a guy like Zubkov. His success rate outside North America is not as great.

So for Holcomb to win a bronze medal at the Sochi Olympics, beating another Russian sled by .03 for that last medal, that’s worthy of celebration.

The 62-year drought? As is equated so often in sports, Holcomb wasn’t around for most of that time. But it speaks to how tough it was for the U.S. to break through in a sport long dominated by European nations.

Perception and reaction has varied across sports and athletes in Sochi. The U.S. speed skaters haven’t performed to expectations. Snowboarders and skiers have surprised.

Shaun White was a gold-medal favorite and finished fourth. Disappointment.

Hannah Kearney was a gold-medal favorite and won bronze, an upset she handled with grace (as did White). Bode Miller looked strong in training and then finished eighth in the downhill. He rebounded and tied for an emotional bronze in the super-G.

If the U.S. women’s hockey team wins silver, you can bet players will shed tears, and they won’t be of joy. How will people react if Ted Ligety wins silver in the giant slalom? If Mikaela Shiffrin wins silver in the slalom? How will Ligety and Shiffrin react?

Then there’s Dutch speed skater Koen Verweij.

The Dutch speed skaters have been seen as the epitome of dominance in Sochi, winning 16 medals. Here’s what their star, Sven Kramer, said Monday about Verweij, who missed gold by .003 of a second in the 1500m.

“What annoys me is that people blame him for not being happy with the silver,” Kramer said. “It’s good that he was unhappy. It’s top sport, and top sport is about winning.”

All medal reactions are not equal.

The U.S. won two medals on Monday to bring its total to 18 for the Olympics. There’s almost no chance it tops the 37 from Vancouver, even with more events at these Olympics than four years ago.

At the same time, it is tied with Russia for the overall medal lead. It is one medal ahead of the Netherlands and three medals ahead of Canada and Norway. The U.S. also could win a medal on every day of the Winter Olympics, which it has never done. (OK, so that’s a novelty stat.)

But with six days left of competition, the U.S. is in the running to win the overall medal count for the first time at a Winter Olympics held outside North America.

What will be a success? It’s hard to say, but Holcomb seemed pretty thrilled to contribute to the U.S. tally Monday night.

“Obviously, everybody here wants to win,” he said. “We’re happy to be in that hunt.”

Wrong anthem at medal ceremony leads winner to leave

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Belarus triple jumper Violetta Skvartsova smirked and eventually left the podium as the wrong anthem was played during her medal ceremony at the European U20 Track and Field Championships on Friday.

Skvartsova heard the Bosnian and Herzegovina anthem instead. Video is here.

Skvartosova said it was insulting, according to the Belarus track and field federation, which reported that organizers offered to hold the medal ceremony again.

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Katie Ledecky needs help to win 2 golds to open swimming worlds

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Katie Ledecky dominated to win her first gold of the world championships. She needed help for her second one.

Ledecky, possibly en route to a record-tying six gold medals at a single worlds, won the 400m freestyle in the second-fastest time in history in Budapest on Sunday.

An hour later, Ledecky swam the third leg of the U.S.’ 4x100m free relay that took gold by .29 over rival Australia. But Ledecky had the slowest split of the U.S. quartet by .67 (and 1.04 seconds slower than her split on the Rio Olympic silver-medal-winning team).

She needed help and got it from Mallory Comerford, who broke the American 100m free record leading off, and Kelsi Worrell and Olympic 100m free co-champion Simone Manuel. The U.S. women broke the American record in the event.

Five American records fell overall Sunday, including Caeleb Dressel breaking the men’s 100m free mark leading off the 4x100m free en route to gold (video here).

One world record came down, too. Sarah Sjostrom shattered the 100m free world record by .35 leading off the Swedish 4x100m free quartet that ultimately finished fifth.

WORLDS: TV Schedule | Men’s Preview | Women’s Preview | Schedule/Results

Earlier, Ledecky clocked 3:58.34 in the 400m free to win by 3.2 seconds over countrywoman Leah Smith. China’s Li Bingjie earned the bronze. Ledecky holds the nine fastest times ever, including the world record of 3:56.46 from Rio.

“There’s no disappointment,” Ledecky said of missing her world record by 1.88 seconds. “It’s a world championship gold medal. There’s nothing to complain about there.”

Ledecky, the quadruple 2016 Olympic champion, won her third straight world title in the 400m free and is now up to 11 world titles overall. She has four more races this week and is favored for gold in all of them.

She can tie Missy Franklin‘s female record of six golds from the 2013 Worlds. Michael Phelps won seven golds at the 2007 Worlds.

In other races Sunday, China’s Sun Yang won his third straight world 400m freestyle title, whooping Australian rival and Rio gold medalist Mack Horton by 2.47 seconds (video here).

Sun, 25, bagged his eighth individual world title, trailing only Ryan Lochte (10) and Phelps (15) on the all-time list.

In semifinals, Sjostrom was the top qualifier into Monday’s 100m butterfly final. While Sjostrom is the heavy favorite, Worrell qualified third into the final as she seeks a first individual major international meet medal.

Kevin Cordes broke his month-old American record in the 100m breaststroke semifinals with a 58.64. Olympic champion Adam Peaty was the fastest qualifier into Monday’s final in 57.75, followed by Cordes and Olympic bronze medalist Cody Miller (59.08).

Dressel broke the American record in the 50m butterfly semifinals, a non-Olympic event. Dressel took .15 off the old record by clocking 22.76 as the fastest qualifier into Monday’s final.

Rio gold medalist Katinka Hosszu began her quest to a possible four individual world titles by topping the 200m individual medley semifinals. Americans Melanie Margalis and Madisyn Cox join her in Monday’s final.

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