|Riding a shovel ... and a dream|
By Jim Caple
Page 2 columnist
PARK CITY, Utah -- I have seen the future of the Olympics, and it is beer-bellied men in lycra racing suits, sliding down mountains on shovels at 70 miles an hour, their posteriors overflowing the 14-inch aluminum scoops and their legs wrapped around the handles.
Jacques Rogge, some men with shovels want to speak to you.
"All the current Winter Olympic sports are elitist," John Strader said, explaining his passion for riding shovels to a small but international press corps Monday morning. "We are a blue-collar sport. A working man's sport. Every truck driver in American has a grain shovel in the back of his truck. ... We're the poor man's luge."
Strader, 35, says he is the world-record holder in shovel racing, a sport that until Monday morning I had not previously known existed, let alone that it has a world-record holder. Strader claims to have reached a record speed of 72 mph on his shovel, but that isn't enough for him. He and Gail Boles are the voice and the soul of the International Federation of Shovel Racers, and it is their passion to see their sport become part of the Winter Olympics.
Yes, they are for real.
"If skeleton can get into the Olympics," explained Boles, 39, "we figure we can."
As Strader and Boles enthusiastically explained the intricacies of their sport and described the spectacle of their crashes, as they campaigned for the sport's inclusion in the Olympics, as they stripped to racing suits and snow boots, and as they sat on the shovels with the handle sticking up awkwardly between their legs, a photographer from the international press corps suddenly burst out with a most pertinent question.
"Dude, do you wear a cup?"
"The worst thing you can do is hold onto the handle," Strader said. "Because if you do that, it won't be your balls you have to worry about, it will be your head. The handle can fly up and ... WHAM! ... hit you right in the forehead."
Strader says shovel racing was developed in the late '70s by maintenance workers at Angel Fire, N.M.. The world championships are held there annually, with up to 150 shovelers competing.
There are two categories of shoveling -- production and modified. Production shoveling is simply sliding on a standard shovel from a hardware store with no modifications allowed. Modified shovels can weigh up to 500 pounds and are so elaborate that they bear no resemblance whatsoever to a shovel, built with full cage roll bars, wrist restraints, custom rack-and-pinion steering and nitrogen-aided brakes. "They're a combination shovel and NASCAR," Strader said.
Yes, but they would be absolutely useless to shovel your driveway.
"Modified is what gets people going," said Boles, a pharmacist. "When a modified sled crashes, it's like a yard sale. Pieces fly everywhere."
Boles proudly recalled his crash with a modified shovel in the first Winter X Games. He crashed so spectacularly, "They called it the new 'agony of defeat' video. They show it all the time. It was voted crash of the year."
I don't recall ever voting on the issue, but apparently the crash was a little too spectacular. The X Games kicked out shovel racing after that first year.
"First, they said they were afraid we would fly off into the crowd, and it was a liability issue," Boles said. "Then they told us we weren't exciting enough. I had the crash of the year, and my friend broke his back in three places. That's not exciting enough?"
Getting kicked out of the X Games for being too extreme is probably not the most hopeful prelude to acceptance from the Olympic community. But it might be for the best. Modified shovels threaten the purity and dignity of shovel racing. If these guys are going to find Olympics acceptance, they need to concentrate on the traditional production shovel.
"I'm a realist," said Strader, a radio producer. "For the Olympics to give us a shot, it will have to be a sport done all over the world. Realistically, the first sport included will be the poor man's luge, racing production shovels down the luge track. That will wake up the world."
The key to traditional shovel racing is maintaining control of the shovel. You don't use the handle to steer; instead, you drag a hand to either side to straighten the shovel.
"The shovel is definitely your friend ... your best friend," Strader said. "But the shovel wants to do what it wants to do. That's what makes a good shovel racer. Someone who can coax the shovel into doing what you want to do."
There are several methods of stopping the shovel, including the "corpse position." If all else fails -- and I am quoting from official IFS literature here -- "The last option is to crash, which many racers do."
Besides steering, the other key to shovel racing is how to properly wax the shovel.
"That's the secret of the sport," Strader said. "We use ski wax, car wax, teflon. Some guys even use ham."
Wait a second. Did you say ham?
"Yeah. And Spam."
Hmmm. Might I suggest, John, that when you meet with Rogge, you leave out the part about the Spam.
Strader and Boles seem like good guys with good senses of humor. But they are as serious as John Ashcroft at a state funeral about this. They operate a website (shovelrace.com) and talk about shovelers from all countries lined up at the top of the hill, their shovels proudly painted with their country colors. It's as if, when attempting to convince critics of their sport's legitimacy, they don't quite grasp the fundamental issue that they're sitting on shovels.
But maybe the idea isn't that ludicrous. After all, the two Olympic events I watched after the shovel demonstration were curling and ice dancing, and the ice dance included a French pair performing -- honest to God, I'm not making this up -- to a speech by Martin Luther King Jr.
So who can say that shovel racing is any less deserving of Olympic status than luge or skeleton, which are essentially the same thing without the benefit of being able to double as garden tools.
So keep at it, guys, see you in Torino in 2006.
"Dream your life, and live your dream," Strader said. "And that's what I'm doing."
With that, he headed up the slope for another run, a man and his dream.
And a shovel.
Jim Caple, a senior writer for ESPN.com, is currently in Salt Lake City, uncovering the wild and wacky side of the Winter Olympic Games for Page 2.