February 13, 2010

Bill Plaschke, of the LA Times, sent this from Vancouver, Canada: The charm and challenge of the Winter Olympics could be found Thursday in the
bewildered face of the man who had just been chosen to carry the U.S. flag in Friday night’s opening ceremony.

A 39-year-old dude who rides a sled.

“I was just floored,” said Mark Grimmette, a balding, soft-spoken fellow who is vastly different from the average American in more than just his two medals in four previous Olympics.

He’s vastly different because he lives on a luge.

Americans don’t luge. Americans haul out the sled on snow days, we take it to the nearest public golf course, ride down the 15th fairway until we get soaking wet, then return home to gleefully slide around the house in our socks.

Americans don’t luge unless it’s a video game. Americans don’t skeleton unless its Halloween. Americans don’t biathlon unless it’s on sale.

For many of us, Nordic combined is Vikings versus Packers, curling is something that happens at Supercuts, and aerials was a Disney mermaid.

For the next two weeks, this shiny sweet city of Vancouver and its haunting mountains will be the site of some of the greatest athletic achievements in the world.

I just wish Americans got it. I just wish we could really get our arms around these Games without feeling as if we’re doing so with sweaty mittens.

“It’s tough,” acknowledged Grimmette, who is the perfect choice for flag bearer, a strange dude leading a team of 216 athletes we mostly don’t understand.

They play sports we never see in our neighborhoods. When is the last time you’ve driven past a ski ramp or bobsled track?

They are composed of a demographic that does not mirror our own. The U.S. team has three African Americans, and there are more athletes from Alaska
than either Texas or Florida.

And they don’t dominate as we are accustomed to dominating. In the Summer Olympics, the U.S. has won more than twice as many medals as any other country. In the Winter Olympics, we have won 64 fewer medals than, um, Norway.

“Part of the reason we don’t get the Winter Games is that we just don’t understand the sports — 300,000 Swedes lining a snow-covered path to watch people skiing strikes us as absurd,” said Mark Dyreson, sports historian and professor at Penn State. “But part of it is also bald nationalism. We don’t like it because we’re not top dog.”

Of course, we love figure skating. Ever since Tonya Harding’s people arranged to have Nancy Kerrigan whacked in the knee with a lead pipe, we have loved
figure skating.

We also love snowboarding, because it’s done by those same kids crashing around our supermarket parking lots on skateboards, giving us hope that even our flaky teenagers can one day strike gold.

The rest of the stuff? Most of it makes no sense. Why would you want to ski around with a rifle on your back?

It is so typical of the Winter Olympics to put the American flag not in the hands of pinup skier Lindsey Vonn or snowboard legend Shaun White, but one Mark Grimmette.

He picked up the sport at age 14 when he noticed a construction crew demolishing his favorite sledding hill in a park near his Muskegon, Mich., home. Theysaid they were building a luge course.

“I had never heard of luge,” he said. “But they needed volunteers to help build the course, so I hammered some nails.”

You are correct, this would be like Michael Jordan taking up basketball after laying down the floor of the neighborhood gym.

Grimmette still works as a carpenter, spending last summer building a screened-in porch for one of the U.S. luge officials.

“He hasn’t complained yet, so I guess it’s still standing,” he said.

You are correct, this would be like Kobe Bryant remodeling Mitch Kupchak’s kitchen.

These Winter Olympics will be filled with strange, wonderful stories such as this.

“I’ll never get rich doing this,” said Grimmette, echoing most of the folks marching behind Friday night. “I do it because I love it.”

Dyreson suggested that to make the Winter Games more accessible and enjoyable to Americans, one could reasonably add the sports of basketball, volleyball and wrestling.

I say leave it as it is. I wish Americans got it, but that doesn’t mean we can’t still dig it. The stories are cool, the views are spectacular, and what other sports competition can still buffet our brains and stretch our imagination?

Besides, where else can I ask a flag bearer where he keeps his silver and bronze medals, and hear Mark Grimmette answer quietly that they are “in a sock drawer,” and even more quietly admit it is a dresser he built himself.”

Bob Ryan, of the Boston Globe, isn’t in Florida. He’s in Vancouver taking in the Winter Olympics and had this to say: “Well, yeah, you can always watch
hockey, but we’re not mounting the podium in that one, so don’t get your hopes up. It’s a 4-for-3 featuring Canada, Russia, Sweden, and the Czech Republic.
We’ll be with the Finns, hoping to finish fifth.
Some fetching figure skater? Nope, not this time. No Tenley, no Carol, no Peggy, no Dorothy (and her hair), no Kristi, no Nancy (who wuz robbed, dammit!), no Tara, no Michelle, no Sarah, no contender, no medal, and perhaps no viewers. The great assembly line of American skating princesses is temporarily (we hope) out of order. South Korea’s Kim Yu Na is being fitted for the crown. We’ll soon find out if the American figure skating televiewing public was in it all those years for the sport or the medals. Time to call their bluff.
So what’s in it for Us? Yup, you and me. The Uncle Sam people. What’s in it for the USA at these Winter Olympics? What if – say it isn’t so – cover girl
Lindsey Vonn cannot deliver the goods? Is there anything else to watch, anything else to care about?
It’s easy for me. I’m here. It’s easy to develop an instant interest in sports outside the mainstream. If you’re up close and personal, especially when you see how fabulously athletic and fit these people are, and how so many of these medals come down to undetectabl e movements resulting in differences measured in hundredths of a second.
The truth is that television seldom conveys the true experience of any sport. For all the talk about how football is best viewed at home, with the benefit of
replay and multiple angles, nothing beats being there if the game is even remotely dramatic. And if your entire connection to hockey is from the tube, you would be blown away by the actual grace and power of the players if you had the good fortune to sit close to the action.
And those are sports all of us know. The situation is magnified in a circumstance such as the Winter Olympics, which features many sports we hardly know at all.
We’ve got some great quests and some great stories. Sixty-two years ago Francis Tyler, Patrick Martin, Edward Rimkus, and William D’Amico took gold at St. Moritz in the four-man bobsled. We’re still waiting for another. We came close in Salt Lake City, winning the silver and the bronze, but the gold has gone to competitors from both the good Germany (five) and the evil Germany (three), as well as Switzerland, Canada, Italy, and Austria. (In case you’re counting, there was no competition in 1960 because the host Americans refused to build a bobsled run that would have no future use.)
We’ve got a shot at the gold this year, which is noteworthy, but what makes this an even better saga is the fact that driver Steve Holcomb is trying to adjust to a new physical circumstance – sight. He is afflicted with a corneal disease called Keratoconus, and has undergone surgery to transform his vision from 20/500 to its current 20/20. Strangely, this has made his job harder, because in his near sightless former state he operated comfortably in a sport where feel is everything. For Steve Holcomb, sight complicates everything.
And how can you not root for Kris Freeman? He’s trying to become only the second American to win a medal in cross-country skiing. Bill Koch got the silver in the 30-kilometer Classical 34 years ago in Innsbruck, and that is it for the USA in this sport. It’s an amazingly grueling sport for anyone, and it’s got to be exponentially more taxing if you’re a) diabetic and b) suffering from “compartment syndrome,’’ a very painful condition in which the muscles in his lower legs have outgrown their casings. He’s had surgery for it once, and he’s postponing a second operation to compete here. He’s hardly a favorite, but he’s a known international commodity, and he has an outside chance to crash the top three.
Shani and Chad, now there’s a story. Shani Davis and Chad Hedrick are our best speedskaters, and they have, shall we say, a history. Shani is an anomaly in his sport, an African-American who skates more for personal satisfaction than for medals and who trains outside the auspices of the American speedskating apparatus. Nobody tells Shani Davis what to do, except for Cherie Davis, a single mom who manages her son’s career and stands as the guardian at the gate.
Chad is a cocky guy who isn’t reluctant to praise Chad and who, for example, declared four years ago that “my heart’s bigger than anyone’s out there.’’ It’s
Shani vs. Chad, and it’s Shani and Chad vs. everyone else, and it could make speedskating our most compelling event.
We’ve got Shaun White, the “Flying Tomato,’’ a prohibitive favorite in the halfpipe. We’ve got Lindsey Jacobellis, the young lady who was within sight of the gold medal in snowboardcross four years ago when she decided to execute a showboaty move known as a “method grab’’ and tumbled to a second-place finish. She was unrepentant then (saying this was snowboarding, and she was “just having fun’’), but she has since been more contrite. Her chance for full redemption comes Tuesday. C’mon, you’ve got to be curious.
We’ve got short-track star Apolo Anton Ohno, who won gold in Salt Lake City and Torino, and who is now attempting to become the first person to win
golds both before and after winning “Dancing with the Stars.’’
We’ve got the one and only ice skater/exhibitionist Johnny Weir, and who knows what he’ll do, or say? And don’t forget Bode. Mr. Miller is back, without any pressure or national expectations, and wouldn’t it be just like him to come up with a perfect go-for-it performance in the downhill when his time has supposedly passed?
Who needs a skater for rooting interest? We’re covered.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: