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Finally, the Olympic Games

7 minute read
William A. Henry III

For two weeks the whole world is young and strong and fearless, sporting and peaceful and clean. That is the Olympic myth and the wellspring of the Games’ enduring appeal. They are like a national patriotic day for the whole world, a day when flags wave and people march and the grim realities of the past and, often, the present, are forgotten in a global surge of pride and unity. The reality has often been less inspiring — in Hitler’s Berlin in 1936, in the Munich beset by Palestinian terrorists in 1972, in the tit-for-tat cold war boycotts of 1980 and 1984, not to mention the myriad smaller moments when political bitterness or personal dishonor or random fate blemished the panorama of joyful striving. But whatever the misdeeds and mischances, the myth continually reasserts itself and endures. So it is always a surprise when the Olympics fall short of what the world imagines, a respite from the ordeals of daily headlines and household heartbreak.

This year’s games, in bucolic Lillehammer, in serene Norway, promised to be more than usually escapist. The ideological bombast between East and West has vanished without even the vestige of the old order that marked the Albertville competition in 1992 — the “Unified Team” of swiftly separating nations that were united only in rejecting their common heritage. This year’s tiny host nation, a folksy land of reindeer and trolls, has welcomed the world with no harsher intention than occasionally overcharging for a beer.

* Yet as the Lillehammer Games began in panoply and kitsch, they seemed, especially to Americans, painfully ill-starred. From murder and mayhem to medical peril, from fatal accidents to merely mortifying tumbles, from wolf- pack aggression by American reporters to spontaneous affronts by the egalitarian hosts toward the pampered panjandrums of the International Olympic Committee, the news often evoked disillusionment or dismay.

And over everything has loomed the sorry spectacle of Tonya and Nancy. Their contretemps is not only a living metaphor for tarnished ideals of sport but also a depressing reminder that a litigation-mad and bureaucracy-laden society has if anything diminished its means of extracting plain truth in timely fashion. Whatever the ultimate twist of their tortuous saga, it seems certain that the contest they both sought so ardently to win will unfold without decisive evidence of Harding’s innocence or guilt. The satisfying simplicity of sport, with its winners and losers and tangible numbers and seemingly objective results in a world otherwise given to opinion and guesswork, will in their case be marked by an asterisk of moral doubt. Perhaps that ambiguity reflects the real world as it mostly is. But that is all the more reason to hope for something else from sport.

If the assault on Kerrigan made a kind of crude competitive sense — a product of ambition, anxiety and greed — many of the sad stories that led up to the Games seemed, by contrast, altogether senseless. They involved suffering that could bring no one any gain.

Skier Ulrike Maier, seeking a few extra points for her World Cup standing in a routine downhill race in the final season of a career that had already brought two world championships, broke her neck last month and died. Conditions were unquestionably risky. The timer pole that she hit was controversially sited. And Maier, a consummate pro, knew the dangers. But the slope was familiar, and 67 other competitors that day survived uneventfully. Her death emphasized for athletes and audiences alike the inherent risk in the Olympic goal of pushing “faster, higher, stronger” to the limit. It also underscored a hard lesson every competitor learns in death’s little precursor, defeat: Luck is more than half of life.

German women’s luge coach Sepp Lenz is back at work, hobbling on one leg. He lost the other last December when U.S. slider Bethany Calcaterra-McMahon collided with him on a track in Winterberg, Germany, after he failed to hear the “all-clear” signal that indicated she had started her race. He, of course, will never be the same; perhaps neither will she. German and American lugers had another, even darker, intersection last October, when skinheads beat up medal hopeful Duncan Kennedy, who intervened in a barroom incident to protect teammate Robert Pipkins, a target because he is black. Athletes may appear to lead charmed lives, at least in triumph. But an athlete is always a citizen of the larger world, vulnerable to all its whims.

American ice dancer Elizabeth Punsalan learned that last week, days before she left for Lillehammer with her husband and partner Jerod Swallow. Her father was stabbed to death in his Michigan home, allegedly by her mentally disturbed brother. Speed skater Kristen Talbot learned it when she risked her physical ability to compete by giving a bone-marrow transplant last Jan. 11 to her brother Jason, gravely ill with aplastic anemia. Luger Cammy Myler, already chagrined at the dislocated shoulder last September that dimmed her medal chances, felt her injury diminish in meaning when her brother and sporting mentor Tim was hospitalized for potentially fatal colon cancer.

The hosts were not exempt from family travail, not even cross-country skier Vegard Ulvang, whose love of risk and three 1992 gold medals make him Norway’s best-loved sportsman and its choice to take the Olympic athlete’s oath. An American reporter reduced him to tears at a press conference by asking about the impact on his training of his brother Ketil’s disappearance while jogging last October and of Vegard’s fruitless search for the body, lost in snow at least until the spring thaw.

Ulvang was at the press conference to explain his jarring assertion that the service of I.O.C. president Juan Antonio Samaranch in the Cabinet of Spain’s dictator Francisco Franco decades ago was “bad” and “may not be worthy of sport.” The same day, in a rehearsal of an attempt to outdo the melodrama of 1992 in Barcelona — when an archer ignited the Olympic flame with a streaking arrow — Norwegian ski jumper Ole Gunnar Fidjestol sought to soar down the slope and vault into the air as one of the final bearers of the Olympic flame on its journey to Lillehammer. But he crashed askew, incurring a concussion and dropping out of his place of honor. The privilege went to Stein Gruben, who brought the stunt off stirringly.

Fidjestol’s tumble was a visual encapsulation of Norway’s final week of ) preparation. Its meticulous planning was offset by Ulvang’s provocative remarks and by a barrage of bad press and hostile poll results about high- living I.O.C. members — who will have cars when even Lillehammer residents must ride buses or walk, who stay on expense account at the best hotel when ordinary Norwegians are priced out of most housing in Lillehammer and some are camping overnight outdoors, and who consume foods and beverages considerably grander than the communal cafeteria fare of the athletes. Some I.O.C. Pooh- Bahs were so miffed they threatened to leave.

Soon all this unhappiness will be outshouted by the welcome advent of actual competition. Can Katarina Witt come back from six years of taking it easy on the ice-show circuit? Is Bonnie Blair still the fastest woman on earth, or at least the fastest three inches above it? Does anything remain of Alberto Tomba but the boasting? These are sporting questions to be resolved on the rink or slope, not in a courtroom or hospital operating theater. And as always, there will be surprises, fresh faces emerging, familiar ones sagging, obscurities having everything go right on one perfectly timed day. Once those stories start, these Olympics will seem less doomstruck.

One grim image ought not to fade. As he arrived in Norway, luger Igor Boras confronted video of the assault on a marketplace in his hometown: 69 people died and more than 200 were injured in that worst attack yet on civilians in Sarajevo. A decade ago in that beautiful pastel city, everyone in the world was young and strong and fearless, sporting and peaceful and clean. Back then, so long ago, the harshest stories being told were of how much one had to pay for a beer.

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