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Bid for Olympic Curling Team Casts a Stone for D.C. Voting Rights

By Marc Fisher
Thursday, February 2, 2006

This is the rare idea that developed over beers and blather at the neighborhood saloon, survived through a couple of years of bull sessions, and is now poised to reach toward reality.

It started with this: Remember the night during the 2004 Summer Olympics when the U.S. men's basketball team lost to, of all opponents, Puerto Rico? When the guys hanging out at the Adams Mill Bar in Adams Morgan got over the initial embarrassment of that loss, somebody raised the question: Why exactly does Puerto Rico have an Olympic team?

Turns out Guam, American Samoa and the U.S. Virgin Islands also have Olympic teams despite being territories of the United States. All of those places are represented in Congress by a non-voting delegate. Just like . . . the District of Columbia, which doesn't have an Olympic team.

Yet.

Introducing the captain of the would-be D.C. Olympic team, Mike Panetta. Mike does not sport the stereotypical athletic look, but we pride ourselves here in the District on breaking stereotypes. Mike is 34, a bit on the chunky side, more at home at the watering hole than the skating rink. He's a graduate of American University who works downtown at a firm that specializes in creating grass-roots campaigns for liberal causes -- the Sierra Club, Tobacco-Free Kids, that sort of thing.

Mike's Olympic event is, um, curling. You know, the Canadian sport with the broom and the rock. If you stay up late enough next week, you might catch a glimpse on TV from Turin, Italy; curling is the comic relief of the Winter Games.

"No offense," Mike says, "but curling looked like the only sport we could do. It's not speed skating." In fact, curling is an ice sport for which you don't even need skates.

Mike and a bunch of guys from his office and Ali Cherry -- "We're very inclusive," she says -- are so serious about this that they have actually gone curling. Once.

They even brought along the office Canadian, Kevin McCann. "Curling's in my blood," he says. "Because I'm Canadian." Kevin hadn't actually played the game before they all went out, but he'd seen it on TV.

It's okay; the International Olympic Committee loves amateurs. That's its whole shtick. Especially in the Winter Games. Jamaican bobsled team, anyone?

Enough snickering; this is serious business. In barely more than a week, the group's Web site, http://www.dcolympicteam.org , has won more than 400 commitments to the effort.

These guys are not out for personal glory. They are warriors for a righteous cause: They intend to use the Olympics to win national and global attention for the plight of the 500,000 D.C. residents who are democracy's forgotten -- Americans who cannot vote for a real congressional representative, taxpayers who have no say in how our money is spent, people who serve in the U.S. military yet have no voice in whether we go to war.

The Olympic team is not a wholly original idea. Back when the Rev. Jesse Jackson was the city's shadow senator, the toothless job that exists to lobby for voting rights, he talked about seeking a D.C. team. But someone must have turned on a camera in some other state; Jackson hurried off, and the idea got lost.

Panetta's ploy is the best grab for attention to the D.C. voting rights issue since Foggy Bottom resident Sarah Shapiro proposed back in 2000 to put "Taxation Without Representation" on D.C. license plates. (Panetta and friends' first attempt to win attention for the cause came last summer, when they tried to get the city to rename RFK Stadium "Taxation Without Representation Field," if only for the Nationals' Opening Day.)

On the eve of the opening of the Winter Games, Panetta hopes for a wave of publicity about our plight. As he tells clients at work, "It's easier to ride a media wave than to create one." The curling gambit -- the sport entails sliding a heavy stone into a goal area known as "the house" -- even provides a halfway decent slogan: "Let he who is without a vote cast the first stone."

After moving here from Connecticut for college, Panetta says, it took a few years to feel like a real Washingtonian. His moment of truth came last summer, when his boyhood favorites, the New York Mets, came to RFK to take on the Nats. Panetta heard himself hurling invectives at Mets catcher Mike Piazza. Shocked at his behavior, Panetta realized he had changed: "I am now a D.C. guy."

The Olympic bid is serious enough that the group is approaching the International Olympic Committee about membership, a multi-year process. D.C. voting rights advocates vote yes: "Anything folks do to draw attention to the voting rights issue helps," says Ilir Zherka, executive director of D.C. Vote. "The movement relies on people outside the District learning about the issue and taking action."

While the nascent organization begins its march through the Olympic bureaucracy, the curlers are training. They're heading back onto the ice, and they welcome newcomers -- District residents only. "We're serious about residency," Mike says. "After all, this isn't the Miss America contest."

Athletes in other sports are welcome, too. But if it's curling you want, you have to make your peace with one distressing fact: There's no place to curl in the District. The nearest curling sheet is in Laurel. The place is top-notch, the people there just lovely. But Panetta concedes that it feels slightly off: "It's like training in a foreign country."

* * *

Thanks to support from readers of this column, Project Reboot, the Rockville volunteers who collect used computers and fix them for needy adults and students, has won a reprieve from the Montgomery County government, which had ordered the service to vacate a county-owned building. Reboot director Gerry Rosenkrantz received a letter from the county giving the volunteers an additional six months at their home; he plans to use that time to seek grants and space to keep Reboot running.

Join me at noon today for "Potomac Confidential" athttp://www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.

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