And Another Thing

Columnist Ben Smith talks about the Winter Olympics

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Ben Smith

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Here’s hoping the athletes will redeem these Games

– The Winter Olympics for me will always be Franz Klammer in ’76, attacking the downhill like a man whose good sense has fled the room, taking it to the edge of spectacular failure because taking it to the edge was the only path to gold he had.

The Winter Olympics are short-track speedskating (aka, NASCAR On Ice) and luge and skeleton, speaking of good sense fleeing the room.

The Winter Games are Eddie the Eagle, the ski jumper from England who was so bodaciously awful he gained fame no Olympic medal could ever match. They’re the weirdness of being riveted by sports we know nothing about, like the biathlon and the Nordic combined, and sports we only think we know something about, like figure skating.

Dorothy Hamill’s haircut and Tonya Harding’s shoelace, that’s figure skating. The notorious East German judge. Tai and Randy. The Protopopovs and Peggy Fleming and that ice-dancing couple who never lost, Torvill and Dean or whoever.

That’s the Winter Games for me all over, plus the Denmark women’s curling team, which in 2010 featured the lovely Madeleine Dupont. She could curl, too.

Unfortunately, she’s not on the roster for Denmark this time around. Another failure for Sochi to go with the corruption and contaminated tap water and Internet spying by the Russian government – which probably won’t throw you in jail if you say nice things about gay people, but you never know.

Here’s something I do know: I’m rooting hard for this not to be the unmitigated disaster it seems it will be, because I really do want to see another Klammer or Eddie the Eagle or Jim Craig, standing on his head against the fearsome Soviets.

Always in these things it’s the athletes who redeem everything else, and that may be especially the case this time around, with everything about Sochi smelling so strongly of calamity. Only the athletes can make you forget the bad; only they can uplift the good.

You can, for instance, get away with botching the logistics and preparations and even the opening ceremonies, if Shaun White rocks the halfpipe again. You can kill stray dogs and Keystone Cop everything else, and no one will remember it if the U.S. and Canada play another gold-medal hockey game for the ages, or a ski jumper soars out there where no man (or woman) has gone before, or a speedskater winds up with four or five gold medals hanging around his or her neck.

A for instance: I don’t remember anything about Lake Placid in 1980, except Craig and Mike Eruzione’s goal and Al Michaels’ call the night the U.S. hockey team took down the Soviets in the greatest sporting upset of my lifetime. I don’t know if the accommodations were awful or the logistics a mess or if Lake Placid, which isn’t all that big, was accessible only by dog team.

I only remember Craig, two days later, looking for his father in the stands with an American flag draped over him. That made Lake Placid a smashing success.

Ditto Albertville or Nagano or all the venues since. The games are the thing, at the Olympic Games. The triumphs and the failures – who can forget favored American speedskater Dan Jansen crashing twice in ’88 after being informed his sister had died of leukemia? – and the back stories.

So, bring it on, Sochi. Whatever else happens across the next two weeks, there will be triumphs. There will be failures. There will be the Nordic combined.

Which is a combination of ski jumping and cross-country skiing, in case you didn’t know.

Or even if you did.

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.