By recent standards, U.S. skeleton a success at Games

Updated: February 17, 2006, 7:07 PM ET
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

CESANA, Italy -- Nobody won a gold medal this time, but at least no one got hit by a bobsled, either.

And no one got kicked out of the Olympics for a receding hairline.

And no one filed a lawsuit against anyone.

So all in all, the United States skeleton team had a successful two days at the Olympics. At least, by recent standards.

"This team has really stuck together and come out and put our best foot forward regardless of the situation," Chris Soule said. "We showed what a special team we are by sticking together in the face of so much controversy."

Soule finished 25th out of 27th with two slow runs in Friday's men's competition -- "I'm not sure which one was worst," he said -- but that's not too bad given that last week he was back in Lake Placid helping run a skeleton fantasy camp (note to readers: insert your own punchlines here). He got the call to fly to Italy and join the team after gold-medal hopeful Zach Lund was banned the day before the Olympics started for taking a hair-restoration pill that includes a steroid-masking ingredient.

Lund's ban was just the latest hit in a very bad stretch of months for U.S. skeleton. First, World Cup champion Noelle Pikus-Pace was hit by an out-of-control bobsled at a race, breaking her leg and knocking her out of the Olympics. Then, coach Tim Nardiello was accused of sexual harassment, suspended and ultimately fired for violating an order to stay away from the team. And finally, in the sort of baffling decision rarely seen outside an international athletic body, the Court of Arbitration for Sport said it did not believe Lund was a cheat, but ruled he was banned for a year anyway.

It was the worst period for a skeleton since Kate Moss spent two months in drug rehab.

"We've undergone a lot," said Eric Bernotas, whose sixth-place finish Friday matched Katie Uhlaender's Thursday in the women's competition for the team's best. "I think there was more adversity going on outside our sport than inside. We supported each other tremendously and just kept on moving forward with our job. I hope we continue like that and come out and be really strong in the future."

Our neighbors to the north, meanwhile, fared much better, with Canada placing first, second and fourth. Duff Gibson won the gold, Jeff Pain won the silver and Paul Boehm missed the bronze by just .26 seconds behind Switzerland's Gregor Staehli. So, at least it's not a continent-wide problem.

Skeleton was one of the bigger stories at Salt Lake in 2002, when the sport returned to the Games after a 54-year absence and Jim Shea joined his father and grandfather as Olympians by winning the gold medal. This time, it provided mostly punchlines.

If I told you you had a nice skeleton, would you hold it against me?

Shea talked to reporters briefly after Friday's race, trying to put the best spin possible on skeleton's recent troubles.

"This is sport," Shea said. "Things happen. This is why we love to watch sports. You don't know what's going to happen."

Well, true. But sexual harassment allegations? A guy getting busted for hair tonic? People don't watch for that.

"This sport is going to explode. It's exploding in Europe," Shea insisted. "It's cheap. It's extreme. Bobsled is the champagne of thrills and luge is the moonshine. And it's accessible to the public."

Shea evidently slid on his head too many times. Cheap and accessible to the public? Maybe if you live near Lake Placid, Park City or Calgary, because that's where the only three tracks are in the entire western hemisphere. There is little doubt that the three sliding sports -- luge, skeleton and bobsled -- are terrific fun to try, but the biggest challenge they face is inaccessibility.

Given that, maybe the recent problems wind up helping the team down the road. Any publicity is good publicity, and at least the headlines and jokes kept skeleton out of the closet and in the spotlight. Well, in the vicinity of the spotlight.

Or as Shea said, "Great sliders fall down a lot but they always get back up."

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com