The troubled Olympics

Hal Quinn March 3 1980

The troubled Olympics

Hal Quinn March 3 1980

The troubled Olympics


Hal Quinn

“Well, anything's better than going to school."— Steve Collins, 15, Canadian ski jumper at Lake Placid

The faces in the crowd were drawn as the XIII Winter Olympics came to a close. The tired wanderers of Lake Placid’s Main Street, by now immune to the NOLYMPICS and the LET THE SOVIETS PLAY WITH THEMSELVES T-shirt vendors, no longer noticed the BOYCOTT THE MOSCOW GAMES stickers fading on the flagpoles at the award ceremony site and speedskating oval. The ticket scalpers were asking, and not getting, $100 for two $60 seats at what were once thought to be the events. Tourists eagerly sought only ways to leave town early as shopkeepers counted the days until the end, just as they had counted the days before they welcomed the world.

The visitors departed clinging to souvenirs and memories of fleeting moments of excitement, only fully understood by the Europeans among them. To the North American majority, hockey had been familiar, given meaning by the Cinderella U.S. team’s amazing 4-3 win over the U.S.S.R.; glimpses of Alpine skiers exciting; figure skating beautiful, however incomprehensible its scoring; speedskating almost monotonous but still inspiring thanks to the unprecedented five gold medals won by the Games’ undisputed star, American Eric Heiden; the ski jumping and bobsledding on a par with motor racing—a vicarious flirtation with disaster. But cross-country skiing, however admirable, was a boring spectator sport, as was the biathlon. And the luge, a laid-back sleigh ride down an ice track, was best summed up by one jaundiced New Yorker—after spending $75 in travel and tickets to see it, he said: “The first thing I’m going to do when I get home is get the Olympic logo tattooed on my chest—because I don’t want my friends to think coming to Lake Placid was the dumbest thing I’ve ever done.”

The harmonics and feigned harmony of the closing ceremonies and the salute to the Games planned for Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, in 1984 could not displace the question in most people’s minds: “Were these the last Winter Games?” In the

chaos and disorganization of the first week, amid shouts of “Carter, you’re boycotting the wrong Games,” the International and U.S. Olympic Committees trumpeted their doctrines to the press as, outside, a small-town Adirondacks mentality confronted the demands for service and the immediacy of an urbanite invasion—and lost. As a $660,000 addition to bus services rescued the Games from utter transportation chaos in week 2, President Jimmy Carter’s Feb. 20 deadline for the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan came and went. As the boys and girls of winter played on, the Summer athletes trained, and pondered their politicians.

In Lake Placid, Feb. 20 was just another mind-numbing Olympic day, if perhaps a little warmer than others. The date was noted in Washington on the other side of the mountains, by politicians in Britain, Australia and China supporting Carter’s call for a boycott of the Summer Games in Moscow. But the Soviet troops stayed on in Afghanistan, and the USOC had already declined to respond to Carter’s demand for a quick decision. It won’t decide before its annual meeting April 12, perhaps not until the IOC’s May 24 deadline for accepting or rejecting invitations to Moscow. The majority of national Olympic committees will do the same, including Canada’s. “We won’t make any decision before our annual meeting, which is after the Americans’,” said Dick Pound,

president of the Canadian Olympic Association. “We’re not going to take a stand that could be rendered foolish or obsolete by time.” The IOC delegates and Olympic committees are in unanimous agreement that Carter’s boycott proposal was “hastily reached, showing an inadequate understanding of the workings of international sport and the Olympic movement,” according to Pound.

Setting Olympic records in his first four gold-medal races, Heiden shattered the world record by 6.2 seconds in winning his fifth, the 10,000-metres. “That was the last world record I ever thought I’d break,” he told a packed, admiring press conference. “S—, I

don’t think the medals are anything special—you can’t do anything with them. I’d rather get a good warm-up suit—I could use that.” Heiden was confident that even his phenomenal performance won’t attract Americans to speedskating. “Yeah, it’s pretty boring. North Americans are into contact sports like hockey. S—, the 10,000 metres, I don’t know how some of those people can stay out there and watch it.” (His time was 14 minutes, 28.16 seconds.)

After achieving what no one had done before, Heiden said the greatest sporting accomplishment he had ever seen was the U.S. hockey team’s 4-3 victory over the U.S.S.R. “That was something special.” And it was. The streets of Lake Placid witnessed a rebirth of nationalistic pride, while U.S. hockey coach

Herb Brooks called it “the greatest victory in the history of U.S. hockey,” eclipsing the U.S. gold won at the Squaw Valley Olympics in 1960. With just a win over Finland separating the Americans from a 1980 Gold medal, the team sang God Bless America after defeating the Soviets.

But apart from Heiden’s triumph and the U.S. hockey team’s stunning success, the Lake Placid Olympics were an American tragedy. The much heralded skating pair of Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner were forced to withdraw when Gardner injured a groin muscle, and few others lived up to their massive hype. The chief victim was Eric’s speedskating sister, Beth Heiden. Only in America could illuminated signs proclaim WE ARE READY and WE MADE IT above the cursing evidence to the con-

trary, or a 20-year-old be asked if she had lost her fighting spirit after she had just won a bronze medal. Tearyeyed, voice cracking, she said that when the pre-Olympic hype started, she had to ask herself, “Is the sport worth it?” For the moment, it is for Gaétan Boucher, the Canadian silver medalist in the 1,000-metres speedskating. “I don’t mind all this sudden attention,” said the 21-year-old from Ste. Foy, Quebec, “because you wait so long for it. But it makes me laugh that people are surprised at my medal. I have been in the top three in the world the last three years, second in this event for two years!” But for Eric Heiden, Boucher would have had a gold. Following his victory over the fleet Canadian, Heiden said: “I was very happy to be paired with Gaétan. He has a great start, a good 600 metres, and I can look over at him and know where I stand against the rest of the world.” Boucher smiled on hearing that. “He came up beside me after, tapped me on the knee and said, ‘Good race.’ He is impossible to beat this year, but I wish he wasn’t going to retire. I know I can get better, and I’d love to beat him someday.” Boucher feels his

attitude is not shared by all Canadian competitors. “They come 10th and say, ‘That’s okay,’ and they keep coming 10th. They have to work, want more. I knew I could win the silver but if I was always going to be second, I would give it up.”

The Canadian figure skating dance pair of Lorna Wighton and John Dowding are thinking of giving it up—if their world status remains static. “Coming into the Olympics we were ranked sixth,” said Dowding, “and in the judges’ minds, that’s where we’re stuck.” They finished sixth. If the Taiwan, Moscow and White House political swirl set the stage for these Games, that show would close after the first night in the face of competition from the political show within the “sport” of figure skating. For Canadian singles champion Heather Kemkaran, the political broadsides came front and rear. Standing 16th after compulsory figures, she said: “I looked at my figures—I was totally happy, they were some of the best I’ve carved. But I was marked down. Like everyone else, I’m just waiting in line until the judges decide it’s my turn to get the marks.” She won’t be in line at the upcoming world championships. Tracy Wainman, 12, who finished third behind Kemkaran in the Canadian championships, will skate. Canadian officials have admitted that, among other reasons, Wainman is going because they want the judges “to get to know her.” Kemkaran is bitter. “I guess some people have to work for what they get, and some have it handed to them.”

At least on the ski slopes it was straightforward commercialism, and at the hockey rink old-fashioned partisanship. Ken Read’s Solomon binding released at Gate 3 in the downhill race in week 1, erasing his favored chances.

Steve Podborski’s Tyrolia bindings went to the bottom with him on his bronze-medal run. “Yeah, it’s money,” said Read. “If Steve switched to Solomon bindings then we’d all [the Canadian men’s team] be on them and we’d lose Tyrolia’s fee.” European writers estimated that the downhill gold would be worth about $75,000 to Austrian Leonhard Stock, in endorsements and “time payments.”

Leaving the downhill to the Crazy Canucks and the Austrians, Sweden’s Ingemar Stenmark (“Questions, always bloody questions,” he said, turning his back on reporters), who few doubt earns more than $250,000 a year as an “amateur,” went quietly about winning a gold in his 17th consecutive giant-slalom victory, and another gold in the slalom ahead of American Phil Mahre. Annemarie Moser-Proell of Austria won the woman’s downhill, Hanni Wenzel (for Liechtenstein’s first golds ever) the slalom and giant slalom, with Can-

ada’s Kathy Kreiner a pleasantly surprising fifth, ninth and 15th, placing her fourth overall.

The boys (with 39-year-old Terry O’Malley tagging along) from the “cradle of hockey,” as Soviet Life calls Canada, left medal-less in sixth place, but with pride almost intact. After limiting its chances with a loss to Finland, the Canadian hockey team had the flagwaving crowd booing the faint cheers for the opposition and chanting “Da Da Kanada, Nyet Nyet Soviet” as it took a 3-1 lead over theheavily favored U.S.S.R. team. But lapses—which al-

lowed the Soviets to score with 13 sec£ onds left in the second period, twice in

12 seconds and once from behind the net p in the third—cost Canada any medal I hope. But two days later, the collective, £ glove-muffled applause and frostedH breath roars that greeted Heiden’s gold

medals couldn’t match the arena-bound frenzy that engulfed the U.S. team as it skated out to meet the Soviets.

Soaring above the political intrigue and back-room chaos, Steve Collins, the 15-year-old, five-foot-three, 105-pound ski jumper from Thunder Bay, leaves the games room at the Olympic Village. The banks of pinball machines and electronic “games of skill” have captured his every off-hour away from training, jumping and occasional flourishes of Grade 10 homework. “This is great, I really like it,” he says. And he loves to “fly,” the ski-jumper jargon for what they do. Collins finished 28th in the 70 metres, a spectacular ninth in the 90. “But I’ll win the gold in 1984.” With such idealism, and perhaps naïveté, were the ancient Olympics resurrected in 1894.