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

Feb 17, 2014, 9:30 PM EDT

holcombAP AP

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.”