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Thursday, February 21, 2002
Updated: February 23, 3:48 AM ET
Minds, bodies and soul patches

By Locke Peterseim
Special to Page 2

In the uptight, hyperefficient world of Olympics sports, any tiny variation in style gets attention. For short-track skater Apolo Anton Ohno, whose face graced the cover of Sports Illustrated before the Olympics even started, the eye-catcher is a tiny strip of hair from his lower lip to his chin -- his soul patch.

Apolo Anton Ohno
Apolo Anton Ohno represents the new style of the Olympics.
The soul patch is the "I meant to do that" of facial hair. Unlike a Grizzly Adams/Ted Kaczynski full-on beard, the soul patch doesn't require a lot of scratching or checking for ticks. And unlike geometrically correct goatees, it doesn't say, "I'm on Satan's team." Instead, a soul patch says things like, "I'm cool" or "I'm a little rebellious" or "I'm sensitive" or "I'm a little hung up on myself" or "I can grow hair right there on that spot right below my lip, and some of my friends can't."

The patch has been making statements for centuries. William Shakespeare and 15th century Walachian ruler Vlad the Impaler sported soul patches in addition to their mustaches. Shakespeare's said, "Hey, I'm a swinging artsy guy on the make in Elizabethan London." Vlad's spoke more along the lines of "Get out of my yard, you bastard Turks or I'll stick you up on skewers like lawn decorations!"

The tiny patch came back into style on the chin of trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie in the 1950s, when it was sometimes called the "jazz dab." From there it was quickly adopted by the beatniks, because it was easier to mimic Gillespie's small tuft of beard than to puff your cheeks out to freakish, terrifying sizes. As with most other things beatnik, mainstream America got its first taste of the soul patch on the face of Bob "Maynard G. Krebs" Denver in the late '50s on "The Lives and Loves of Dobie Gillis." It wasn't the last time Denver would be setting fashion trends -- he would later popularize the white beach hat, thanks to "Gilligan's Island," and the wearing of bulky plexiglass astronaut helmets, following his stint on "Far Out Space Nuts."

Phil Jackson
Phil Jackson shows the flavor-saver isn't just for the young.
While it was always popular with soul and R&B performers such as Little Anthony and the Imperials, over in the mainstream, the soul patch flame was kept alive and carried through the moustache-dominated '70s by two paragons of hipster cool, musicians Frank Zappa and Tom Waits. The slightly less cool and paragonal Jake and Elwood Blues, the Blues Brothers, took the soul patch into the '80s, where, like all other remaining expressions of the counterculture, it was quickly snuffed out.

Grunge brought facial hair back in the early '90s, with the goatee leading the charge. But it was only a matter of time before sloppy shaving habits -- i.e., shaving while totally high -- led many grungers to accidentally chop their goatees down to little nubs. And so the soul patch was back, with too-cool-for-school nicknames like the "flavor saver" and the "cookie duster."

In recent years the patch has rested defiantly on the rebellious chins of Fred Durst, Keanu Reeves and the enigmatic Chris Gaines. But it's a proven Law of Celebrity that all rock stars secretly wish they were jocks and all sports stars wish they were rockers. So it wasn't long before the soul patch spread to the sporting world, adding a dash of hirsute èlan to icons such as Mike Piazza, Randy Johnson and Phil Jackson.

As for Ohno, the tuft of hair below his lip is technically a little more than a soul patch -- reaching down to cover his chin, it's a soul patch with delusions of goatee grandeur. Regardless, Ohno's chin, along with his sport, in which Rollerball-style crashes are commonplace and a skater can be cut by his own skate, as Ohno was last week, says loud and clear that this ain't your father's (or mother's) Olympics -- instead, call it the OlympiX Games.

"Closer Look" will be a regular Page 2 feature, exploring a hot sports topic in greater detail.