Wednesday, February 20, 2002
Coming in last is worth millions to Argentine slider
By Eric Adelson
ESPN The Magazine
SALT LAKE CITY -- German Glessner smiles warmly at all his friends at Austria House. They tell him he looks well. He thanks them, and then Argentina's first and only Olympic skeleton slider sighs.
"If you could have seen me one month ago," Glessner says softly, "I've lost 10 pounds."
Glessner's slim-to-none medal hopes died in January when he tried to use his ATM card. He was in London. He had just signed a lease for an apartment. He was counting the days until his Olympic moment. He had the equivalent of $20 in his pocket. He slid his card into the machine, and learned it was not valid. He tried his debit card. Nothing. He called his bank back home in Buenos Aires.
"Forget about your money, boy," they told him. "Your assets are frozen."
Late in December, the nation of Argentina defaulted on its sovereign debt. The fallout: five presidents in 12 days, 32 dead in riots and looting, and millions of Argentines in sudden financial ruin. Glessner was just one.
"I lost all my money," Glessner says over a complementary cola. "My money! I just want to go to those bankers and -- POW! -- get my money back."
For 5½ years, almost all of Glessner's money went to his Olympic dream. He has loved the ice track since he first saw it at age 12 on a visit to Germany. So he learned to bobsled in Lake Placid and Innsbruck, using his salary from his computer programming job. When the four-man game got too rich for his blood -- a good bobsled can cost $30,000 -- Glessner tried skeleton.
"I wanted to compete in Salt Lake City," he says, "then finish in the top eight in Torino and medal in 2010. And I'll do it -- I promise you."
In 1996, Glessner and close friend Christian Atance founded the Argentinean Bobsled and Luge Federation. "People laughed at us," Glessner says. "They were like, 'Yeah, yeah, Cool Runnings!' "
But Glessner was dead serious. So serious he carried on his crusade without any help from his floundering government. All of his funding -- from his plane ticket to his helmet -- came either from sponsors or his own pocket. Even the Argentinean Olympic training center would not allow him to lift a single barbell because he did not play a Summer Games sport. "My country doesn't care about the Winter Olympics," Glessner says.
So Glessner trained all over Europe, making friends and taking lessons everywhere from Italy to Austria. Now he insists he never wants to go back to Argentina. "Politicians are all corrupt there," he says. "To all the politicians, I say, 'We made it without you.'"
But Glessner nearly didn't make it at all. In January, he lived on homemade gnocchi for days and felt faint as he headed into qualifications for the Salt Lake Games. Most of his competitors had taken hundreds of practice runs in the past year, but Glessner could only afford 30. Somehow, he finished sixth in the Challenge Cup -- good enough for the Games. Glessner looked up from his sled, saw the result, and burst into tears.
Wednesday, Glessner wore Bib No. 1 as the first official skeleton slider in Winter Games history. He slid on a sled borrowed from an Italian friend. He competed without a coach. He didn't medal -- he finished last, not nearly as well as he would have if his nation had not let him down. His future after the Games is uncertain, as his only source of money is his aunt in Germany.
Still, Glessner smiles on. "I know I'm not going to get a good position," he says with moist eyes. "But I am an Olympian. No one will take that away from me. I will be an Olympian forever. And I wouldn't exchange that for millions."
Eric Adelson writes for ESPN The Magazine.