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1992 Winter Olympics: It’s A Kick, But Is It Olympian?

6 minute read
William A. Henry III

Sticking a ski pole into the ground for leverage and vaulting a couple of meters forward to the accompaniment of rock music from a boom box. Wiggling back and forth on skis around a series of powdery bumps, periodically climbing these hillocks to leap off, flinging one’s limbs spread eagle for a nanosecond or thrusting one’s hindquarters left and right during a fleeting free fall. Skating at breakneck pace in a roller-derby throng around the perimeter of a hockey-size rink. Scuttling along a sheet of ice, brushing away bumps with a broom to clear the path of a flat, slow-moving stone. Or ducking one’s head, bracing one’s breakables and trying to hurtle faster than a sports car down a short stretch of sheer slope, sans turns, sans twists and sans breathing.

Hearty, vigorous, genial and suitably spandexed these activities all are. But are they really sports worthy of the Winter Olympics? Do ski ballet and aerials and moguls, short-track skating, curling and speed skiing display the requisite patina of frostbitten history and frigid heritage? Do they evoke the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that is Nome?

The answer to that question is a resounding “absolutely” from fans and a resonant harrumph from keepers of the flame. Spectators in Albertville have been cheering for the newcomer sports, in part because several French competitors have been medalists or contenders. But elsewhere, TV viewers have been granted only modest exposure and minimal instruction. What they have been most likely to sense is an aura of novelty and rebellion.

The half a dozen start-up sports this year include two debuting as medal events: free-style skiing over bumps, or “moguls,” and short-track speed skating. Four others are being classed as “demonstration” sports — a shadowland category, bestowing medals that are not real medals — that will be dropped altogether after this year. It is up or out: they must become medal sports or disappear from the Games.

The decision on their fate, which will rest with the International Olympic Committee, is of vital significance to the pride and profit of each parvenu sport’s participants, impresarios, bureaucrats and merchandisers. Getting a sport recognized takes years of lobbying and piles of documents. Moments after he won the first ever moguls skiing gold medal, Edgar Grospiron of France shifted from exultation to exhortation. “After this,” he told the press last week, “we will have to continue to work hard so that the other free-style skiing disciplines, ballet and aerials, also become medal events.”

Mogul skiing, in which Donna Weinbrecht of New Jersey earned the women’s gold medal last week, is dramatic. It involves slaloming among scores of boneshaking bumps down a straight 820-ft. course while completing two jumps, striving for both style and speed. Its curse, like that of so many Winter Olympics sports old and new, is that it involves subjective judging. That inevitably means at least a suspicion of politics — of favoring the stalwarts, whatever their performance on the day, over outsiders who may rise to one particular occasion.

Subjectivity is everything in judging ski ballet, which resembles figure skating on skis and snow rather than skates and ice, and aerials, a form of skiborne gymnastics. The men’s ballet winner, Fabrice Becker of France, wore a red sash around his waist and did a dancerly tango. Lane Spina of the U.S., who won a silver demonstration medal at Calgary in 1988 and a bronze this year, has a more robust style and wishes his sport would rename itself ski acrobatics. Says Spina: “It’s a lot more acrobatic than figure skating.” He has the battle scars, from five knee operations, to prove it.

It is easy to dismiss most of the aspirant sports as upstarts. While curling can trace its formal heritage to a club formed near Glasgow in 1510, and speed skiers cite competitions in late 19th century California, free-style skiing took off in the 1960s and short-track skating in the ’70s. Free-style ski competition began to be regulated only after two U.S. aficionados were paralyzed while attempting double backward somersaults in 1973; the sport did not hold its first full-fledged world championships until 1986.

Yet in truth this arriviste nature is in keeping. Unlike their summer counterpart, the cold-weather Games had no classical antecedents. Moreover, some elements now considered traditional were afterthoughts. Luge, the quintessential Winter Olympics sport — in what other context does it ever arise? — entered the Games only in 1964. Ice dancing came along in 1976.

Despite the claim of being a worldwide event, moreover, the Winter Games reflect, far more than the Summer ones, the Eurocentrism of the early Olympic movement. Just once has the competition been held outside Europe or its erstwhile colonies, the U.S. and Canada (at Sapporo, Japan, in 1972). Nations like Norway, too small to be a dominant factor in the Summer Games, win a fistful of medals time after time in the winter, while the world media regularly fasten on such symbols of this imbalance as Jamaican bobsledders and Senegalese downhillers. The formal criteria for inclusion in the Winter Olympics specify that a sport must be “widely practiced in at least 25 countries and on three continents.” But “widely” means having a national governing body. Thus luge qualifies as widely practiced in the U.S. with about 50 serious competitors and one accredited track, at Lake Placid, in a nation of 250 million.

Governing bodies that band together as an international federation may then seek admission for their sport in the Winter Olympics, but they must do so at least seven years before a specific Games. The process can be speeded up by making a new sport an offshoot of the old, as has happened with free-style skiing. The disadvantage is that this parent federation may dominate decisions about which events gain medal status. For example, Marc Hodler, the Swiss president of the International Ski Federation, sanctioned the rise of mogul skiing, but reportedly opposes giving the same status to aerials or ballet. Yet the ballet skiers are convinced that two years from now, their sport and aerials will join mogul skiing as full medal events. Says Conny Kissling of Switzerland, who won the demonstration gold in ballet: “They’ve already built the sites in Lillehammer.” Purists may not like change, but Olympic history is full of the novel becoming the venerable. By the Games of 2022, it may be grandam Kissling who is declaring that, say, rhythmic snow dancing does not deserve to be elevated alongside her time-honored pursuit.

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