Monday, February 25, 2002
The Olympics are like any other family reunion
By Jim Caple
SALT LAKE CITY -- The thing about inviting the entire world into your home is that the entire world shows up. All that is good in us, plus a little too much of what is bad, rings your doorbell and asks if there is room on the couch.
So in addition to all those loved ones you missed so much (good to see you again, Mr. Shimer -- and nice medal!), and those wonderful new friends you meet (Yes, Janica, we have room for the whole Kostelic family), all those crazy aunts and uncles and bullies from childhood show up, as well (Here's your hat, Madame Le Gougne).
Thus, these past 17 days had corrupt judges in figure skating, Russians threatening to walk out in a huff because they didn't win enough medals, Koreans filing lawsuits and gold medals being handed out like gold stars in kindergarten (yes, you are special. And you are special, too. We are all special!). During the press conference when the Russians threatened to leave the Olympics, Russian delegates and Russian reporters got into a shouting match in which someone yelled something about, "We're going to cook the judge and make soap out of him."
(If you want to see that particular event covered live, you'll have to watch MSNBC.)
And that's all right. When there is so much else good going on all around you, you simply leave the bickering relatives a couple blankets in the attic, turn off the lights and tell them you'll see them in the morning. You have the Olympics to enjoy.
These past two weeks have been busier than an IOC accountant after the Olympic bids arrive. We did the wave with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir during the opening ceremonies and waited for President Bush to call us on our cell phones. We listened to athletes snore in the village dorms with Jacques Rogge and we heard the Russians complain about unfair competitions. We tried (unsuccessfully) to figure out the judging standards in figure skating and tried (successfully) to learn the spelling of the outrageously named Ottavio Cinquanta.
We skated powerfully with Chris Witty, Derek Parra and Casey FitzRandolph, and we fell into a heap at the finish line with Apolo Anton Ohno. We raced down a hill headfirst at 80 mph with Jim Shea and skied down others with Janica Kostelic. We soared to the moon with the Belarus hockey team and we collapsed to earth, unable to take another step, with the cross-country skiers. We kissed the ice with Alexei Yagudin, fell to it with Michele Kwan and soared above it with Sarah Hughes.
And we also went through so many invasive security checks that we won't need a colon exam for another year.
We in the American media covered the Olympics as if they were our own private games, which is both understandable and grossly inaccurate. Norwegian biathlete Ole Einar Bjoerndalen, after all, won four gold medals and yet oddly, I don't remember his appearance on the Jay Leno show.
If you didn't think the entire world was here, though, you never stood in line at the Roots store.
Athletes from 78 nations competed here, including a lone athlete from Bermuda, a luger who walked into the opening ceremonies dressed, appropriately enough, in Bermuda shorts. "I wasn't that cold and it was only for five minutes," Patrick Singleton said. "Besides, it's important to represent your country well."
Bermuda is a small island noted for its beaches, so it is not surprising that it had only one Olympian here. Consider being the lone representative from India, as bobsledder Shiva Keshavan was. Or imagine walking into a stadium filled with screaming Americans and marching past the United States president who had just termed your country part of an evil axis. Skiers Bagher Kalhor and Seyed Mostafa Mirhashemi did that and received one of the louder ovations of the ceremonies.
"I just wanted to wave my flag and raise it higher and show (the president) that we're from Iran and we don't have any problem with America," Kalhor said.
"I would like to say that what you've heard about us is not true. That we are people just like you."
So many people from all over and so like us. Consider Timothy Goebel. The night he won the bronze medal with the skate of his life, Goebel celebrated briefly, spoke with the media, took his drug test, celebrated some more and then went home to do his laundry. "When you're out of socks," he explained, "you're out of socks."
So many people, so like us. And yet so different.
That's why we watch the Olympics, after all, to see people perform feats we can only dream about. To have them train years and years, making the sacrifices we can't or won't make, so that they can lift our spirits higher than an Eric Bergoust aerial twist.
We met so many people here in Salt Lake. Kostelic, whose family lived out of their car while she competed in European junior races, set an Olympic record by winning four medals, three of them gold. They were the first four winter medals ever won by Croatia and two more than the entire U.S. Alpine team combined.
We met Ildiko Strehli of Hungary, who underwent a bilateral mastectomy three years ago, but raced down the track in the first women's bobsled competition, riding in what she named "A Sled Full of Hope." "This is so important to me," she told a reporter. "I want to tell the people who are fighting with cancer to keep fighting and never give up. They have to keep dreaming."
And of course, we met Jamie Sale and David Pelletier, the figure skating pairs, along with their Russian counterparts, Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze. They became the story of the Olympics when the Russians won the gold medal despite evidence that the French judge had been pressured to change her scores. The story made worldwide headlines and prompted much hand-wringing over the legitimacy of figure skating. "Our sport has gangrene," one person said, but Pelletier put it best when he said right after receiving the silver medal, "If I didn't want this to happen to me, I would go down the hill on skis."
Eventually, the Canadians received a gold medal, as well, ("We hope we can get the bronze, too," Pelletier said, "so we can have the entire collection."). And in a fitting gesture at the end of the skating exhibition of champions, the two pairs performed a single move together, Pelletier and Sikharulidze spinning Berezhnaya and Sale as the two women held onto each other.
It was a wonderful moment. Although it may lose something by their 136th night on tour with "Champions on Ice."
While some say those dual golds cheapened the Olympic medals, others knew otherwise. They know how precious they are. The Russian protests, after all, were prompted by a poor showing in the medal standings by athletes who can remember when their team dominated the Olympics. "When I go home and they ask, 'Where is your medal?' that's going to be a difficult question," Russian skier Pavel Rostovtsev said after finishing fifth in the 12.5-kilometer pursuit. "People can ask where and why, but if you look deeper, there are no young athletes coming up in Russia."
Some of the athletes will turn their medals into true gold while others will be satisfied with deeper rewards, knowing the medal reflects not just sunlight, but all those years of dedication and training. And then there is Home Depot employee Derek Parra. Asked whether a promotion was in order after becoming the first Mexican-American to win a Winter Olympic gold medal, he replied, "Maybe I'll move to lumber now."
The person I may remember most though, is not a medalist, but someone who finished in last place.
His name is German Glessner, a skeleton racer from Argentina, a country that has fallen from first-world to third-world standing. For five years, he's been working toward the Olympics, receiving no support from his country because it cares about the Winter Olympics even less than it does about true, democratic reform. He was in Europe this winter when the Argentinian government defaulted on its loans, prompting a bank to freeze his assets. Glessner placed a phone call to his home and his father told him, "I have bad news. You are bankrupt. You have no money."
He had the equivalent of $20 in his wallet. With the help of an aunt in Austria and other athletes (one competitor gave him an old sled), plus some shrewd financial management (he would sneak sandwiches from the hotel breakfast buffet and eat them for other meals), he made it to the Olympics. Despite the obstacles, despite his country's turmoil, despite everything, he reached Salt Lake and readied himself to take his place atop the world.
And then before his race, a bobsled fell on his foot at the track "and my right toe exploded." The toe wasn't broken, but Glessner was injured enough that it was impossible for him to compete anywhere close to his normal level.
"I wanted to show people what I could do with no money," he said. "And then all this happens. I tell you, I've been crying like a baby. Losing all your money, losing your chance in the Olympics. We have an expression in Spanish, 'S--- is falling on your head.' And that is what has been happening to me. S--- is falling on my head. It's like I'm doing all this on purpose to give you a good story. Yes, it's a great story but I don't want it to happen to me.
"What else can happen? If I discover my girlfriend is not a girl, and is instead a boy, maybe that will be worse."
And yet, Glessner competed in the skeleton Wednesday. He had no money, his foot hurt like hell and he finished dead last, but he competed.
"I couldn't push off because of my accident so my two runs were like crap," he said. "I finished last. But the guy on the speaker, I guess, was saying, 'He is wounded, he is limping, give him some applause.' And when I finished, people went crazy. The noise they made. It was very emotional.
"I was pissed off for a while because of the accident but I'm all right again. I cannot change what happened. So now I'm looking forward to Torino in four years. I'm going to medal. I will medal."
These games are just ending and Glessner is already making plans for the next Olympics, where he will be most welcome. The traditional invitation will be extended to the world's youth during the closing ceremonies to gather again in four years and that means everyone, the good and the bad, the gracious and the jealous, the inspiring and the discouraging, the paupers and the princes. "That's the beauty of the Olympics," said Prince Albert, the hereditary prince of Monaco, a five-time Olympian bobsledder and a friend to Glessner. "Anybody who has the talent and who has worked hard and has qualified to be here can be here. That's what the Olympics are all about. People who share the same sporting interest have the same experience to celebrate the Olympics and compete fairly."
See you in Turin.
Oh, and bring your own sleeping bag. It will be crowded. It always is.
Jim Caple is a senior writer at ESPN.com.