Leader Blues

Friday, February 12, 2010

SPORTS >> Warm up the bandwagon for Winter Olympics

By TODD TRAUB
Leader sports editor

I was feeling sort of unpatriotic because I wasn’t excited about the Winter Olympics, which held their opening ceremonies in Vancouver, Canada, on Friday.

Then I saw the Sports Illustrated swimsuit photos of American downhill skier Lindsey Vonn.

Now it’s USA! USA!

But in most cases with the Olympics, winter and summer, I take a wait-and-see attitude, as I’m sure many Americans do.

A couple years ago I raced the length of the press box at Dickey-Stephens Park after an Arkansas Travelers game to catch Michael Phelps’ latest Olympic swimming feat on TV in the video booth.

Of course, by then Phelps was gunning for his eleventy-twelfth medal and had already had to win a ton of hardware for me to sit up and take notice.

From the Winter Games, my favorite moments include, let’s see, The Miracle On Ice, Apollo Ono and Dan Jansen. Yup, all winners. Check.

My detached view, I think, speaks to a deeper truth — when it comes to the Olympics, we’re mostly a nation of bandwagon jumpers.

We’ll support our Cubs and Cowboys, our Hogs and Cardinals, but when the Olympics roll around we need a crash course on who is even on the team, unless of course it’s the all-star basketball Dream Team, which rolled through the 1992 Summer

Games like Patton through France.

In winter of 1988, while defending America’s freedom from my U.S. Air Force desk in England, I could have gotten behind the long shot Jamaican bobsled team, if I’d cared about a great underdog story that is.

But I didn’t, and the hearty Jamaicans, without my support, flipped over and used their helmeted heads as friction brakes on the icy downhill run.

I laughed when one of the Red Cross guys rushing to the rescue slipped and fell on his coccyx — I was much younger then — and I got a kick out of the sheepish “we tried” looks on the Jamaicans’ faces as they trudged, unhurt, away from the scene of their crash.

But no, I missed the boat on the Jamaicans — who at least had a movie made about them — and was trying hard to root for whatever American medal winners we had that year.

A quick Google search reminded me who all six of them were: figure skater Brian Boitano (gold) and speed skater Bonnie Blair (gold in the 500 meters); household name Eric Flaim (silver in speed skating); figure skater DebbieThomas (bronze); pairs figure skaters Peter Oppegard and Jill Wilson (bronze) and Blair again (bronze in the 100 meters).

USA! USA!

At least the U.S. had some spiffy suits for the opening ceremonies this year huh? How about out those Ralph Lauren-designed getups featuring down puffer jackets, chunky cable-knit turtleneck sweaters, fleece pants, and rugged, alpine boots?

Let’s face it; in the past the U.S. athletes have worn monstrosities only Napoleon Dynamite would love.

In his book “You Gotta Play Hurt” the great sports humorist Dan Jenkins described the Russians in their fur jackets and Cossack hats, the French in their chic berets and tan uniforms and the British in their sharp blazers and golf caps. “And then here would come the Americans,” Jenkins wrote, “in their white cowboy hats and astronaut suits.”

USA! USA!

If I have a favorite Winter Olympics sport it’s probably hockey, which satisfies my preference for violence and team play in which a final score and not some judge decides the issue. Though you have to give Tonya Harding and her gang credit for trying to make skating a contact sport when they roughed up Nancy Kerrigan in 1994.

My little sister was a cheerleader/gymnast who was always doing cartwheels and walkovers unexpectedly around the house — you had to be on your toes with her — and ever since she gave me a surprise kick in the choppers I’ve distrusted the sports with judges, like ice skating.

After all, there’s a reason why getting shafted by the Russian judge has become a sports cliché.

In the Winter Games at Salt Lake in 2002, household name Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov allegedly masterminded a bribe scheme in which the French judge awarded lower marks to the Canadian pairs team, allowing the Russians to win.

There was also alleged bribery that led to a Russian judge awarding high marks to the French ice dancing team, which featured a Russian native and a close friend to Tokhtakhounov.

The whole scandal led to the abandonment of the traditional 6.0 scoring system.

So if I watch the Olympics at all, I guess my interest will be limited to hockey again this year, unless Vonn skis in her swimsuit.

USA! USA!