'94 Olympics Achievements Still Burn Bright
By Angus Phillips
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 11, 1995; Page B1
Tomba had pulled a rabbit from his sky-blue hat, squeaking to a silver medal in the last ski race of the Games as opponent after opponent slid out, capsized or otherwise crashed and burned. The world had tuned in to watch the legendary Italian cap a grand career and a grand Olympics and somehow, magically, despite a performance he knew fell short, Tomba gave the world what it craved.
Unchecked joy reigned that evening as the shadows began their inexorable march across the mountains and cold night swooped down. It was the end of the best Winter Games ever, Olympic chieftain Juan Antonio Samaranch would say at closing ceremonies. He always says that, and somehow it always seems true.
So it goes at the world's ultimate sports gathering. Triumphs and flops bigger than life seem to spring up to fill a great, groaning, global need. The world saw sport at its best and worst at the Lillehammer Games, which opened a year ago Sunday, and Americans as always provided much of the excitement.
Remember Tonya Harding lurching like a weepy troll from behind those curtains at the figure skating arena, face in ruin, pathetic asthma inhaler clutched in hand, a minute and a half late for her appointment with destiny after turning the Olympics into a ghoulish sideshow for two months? Tonya, Tonya, where are you now?
Stripped of everything and rooted in ignominy, that's where. At the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Providence, R.I., this week, the program listed the national figure skating title as "vacant," with an asterisk. Below, it explained that Harding had been relieved of her crown after it was found her henchmen had clubbed rival Nancy Kerrigan in the knee with a truncheon just before the national championships and 50 days before the Olympics, where both would represent their native land.
For her connection to the debacle, Harding was barred from skating competition, but not before her less-than-stellar performance in Hamar, where she missed her first jump, then skated weeping to the scorer's bench, hoisted a skate on the rink wall and convinced judges she'd broken a lace and deserved another try and they gave it to her.
For all her histrionics, Harding wound up deep in the pack, a woeful eighth-place afterthought to the excitement of the gold-medal showdown between tiny, doll-like Ukrainian teenager Oksana Baiul, her back still bruised from a training collision, and the tall, elegant Kerrigan with her resurrected knee and chiseled New England face.
Kerrigan nailed every jump but the judges gave the gold to Baiul anyway. Why? Who knows? But Kerrigan was anything but gracious in defeat as she whined backstage. While organizers searched for a tape of the Ukrainian national anthem, silver medalist Kerrigan mistakenly informed that the delay was caused by Baiul redoing her face muttered something to the effect that her little rival needed no makeup she'd only smear it with tears on the podium.
These days Kerrigan skates in big-money professional shows and on TV (her one-hour CBS special airs Wednesday), and represents 17 companies. Her annual earnings are said to be in the low millions.
Harding meantime is halfway through a court-ordered 500 hours of community service and has paid $110,000 in fines. Her ex-husband is in jail for the Kerrigan attack and Harding last skated for free, playing the part of Mrs. Santa Claus in a Christmas skit at the Portland, Ore., rink where she trained for the Games.
Baiul, an orphan just turned 17, has moved to America and is living and training in Simsbury, Conn., where her agent, Michael Carlise of William Morris & Associates, says she "loves shopping, movies and malls. We are all very proud of her." She'll skate at USAir Arena on April 8 with the Campbells Soup Tour.
If the Tonya-Nancy soap opera soured the Games, Dan Jansen's remarkable performance in speedskating elevated them beyond measure. The babyfaced bull from West Allis, Wis., came to Lillehammer to exorcise a demon the one that took his sister, Jane, who died of leukemia the morning of the Olympic race in 1988 that was supposed to provide his first gold medal.
From that moment, Jansen's Olympic career was catastrophic. The best sprinter in the world fell twice in Canada in 1988, failed three times in France in 1992, then bobbled and failed by a split second in his first outing in Norway in 1994.
He had one chance left for glory at Lillehammer and seized it with a scintillating gold medal run for his first Olympic medal in his last Olympic appearance a gold, of course.
A nation's hopes rode on Jansen's broad shoulders the night he raced the 1,000-meters at the Viking Ship, the darkened indoor chasm where speedskating events were held. He was nearly flawless, and when it was over he held a tiny U.S. flag in one hand and his year-old daughter Jane in the other and skated a victory lap for all time.
Today, Jansen is retired from skating and has amassed a small fortune from a year of public appearances and a string of lucrative corporate affiliations. He's much in demand as a motivational speaker at $15,000 a performance. "He speaks for about 40 minutes and at the end you don't see too many dry eyes in the house," said his agent, Steve Rosner.
Meantime teammate Bonnie Blair, the most successful woman athlete in Olympic history, still slogs it out at age 30 in her final year of competition. Blair did all she set out to do at Lillehammer, winning at 500 and 1,000 meters with metronomic efficiency to cap a spectacular Olympic decade. Her five gold medals and six medals overall are the most of any woman ever. Blair might easily have quit, too, but wanted to hang on one more year to compete in the World Championships next weekend at her home track in Jansen's home town Milwaukee's Pettit Ice Center.
So two weeks ago when Jansen was off in Lillehammer with a film crew, being paid handsomely to reminisce about his victory for CBS, Blair was in Innsbruck, Austria, slugging through wind and rain to her first defeat at 500 meters all season and a frustrating fifth-place finish at 1,000 meters.
Not to worry. She's in top form when wind and rain don't hamper her, said coach Nick Thometz, and she's odds-on favorite to close the books with a world championship at Milwaukee next weekend and an overall World Cup sprint title when the season closes and her rich career concludes in March.
If the lasting impressions of the '94 Olympics were forged on ice for Americans, the early hints of a Games to remember came on snow. Tommy Moe kicked off the affair on opening day with a shocking upset in the downhill. His errorless schuss down the icy pitch at Kvitfjell was the first U.S. men's downhill gold in a decade and Moe's first win on the world circuit.
He was hot, not lucky, and if anyone doubted it he put doubts to rest on his 24th birthday six days later when he took the silver medal in the super-G. No American skier had ever won two medals in an Olympics before. Moe was greeted at the foot of the mountain both times by his photogenic, chisel-chinned father, Tom, a former Alaskan smoke-jumper and wilderness firefighter who wore a wolf-fur jacket and left TV audiences around the world with a richer appreciation of the American mountain man.
They got another glimpse of Americana when Moe's wacky teammate Picabo Street won the silver in women's downhill. Her father, Stubby, an aging ex-hippie from Triumph, Idaho, wrapped himself in a faded U.S. flag and spoke for hours to anyone who'd listen on his rich and varied life experiences. His philosophy: "I don't like liquor and I don't like guns. I'm a pot-smoker, man."
Both Moe and Street are back on the World Cup circuit is year, battling fluky European weather that forced cancellation of the World Championships earlier this month in Spain. Street is on a roll, having won two downhills already and standing second just behind teammate Hillary Lindh in overall World Cup points.
Moe has been up-and-down, with one second-place finish his best to date. Olympic teammate Kyle Rasmussen meantime has a downhill win already to his credit, his first in world competition.
Americans scored another skiing coup at Lillehammer when Diann Roffe-Steinrotter won her first race in seven years, taking the gold in women's super-G. The diminutive veteran from upstate New York was in her last ski season and closed it with a bang. At 27, she's gone back to college at Clarkson University, where she has a 3.9 grade-point average and does her studying on planes during the weekends as she heads to various mountains for public appearances.
America's other world-class highlight/lowlight came in pursuit-style speedskating, when 31-year-old, 5-foot-2 Cathy Turner won one gold and had another taken away in a controversial judges' ruling that she'd interfered with a Korean opponent in the 1,000-meter race.
Turner, who absorbed the world's wrath as a dirty skater, is still boiling. "Even President Clinton said I got robbed," she said from a little town outside Rochester, N.Y., where she owns a fitness center and her husband, a veterinary surgeon, operates on dogs and cats.
Turner, retired from skating, has plans aplenty. She's making a movie, doing motivational talks, is a singer/songwriter and ski-races for fun. "In this world," she says, "you can't sit back and wait for things to happen. You have to make them happen."
Maybe so, but up in the frigid Mjosa River Valley 100 miles north of Oslo, where hopes were dashed and dreams came true a year ago, the little town of Lillehammer is grinding back to normal. The moose kick furrows in the deep, soft snow that gilds the frozen lake; residents push hand-sleds along snow-packed thoroughfares, loaded down with groceries, and at night the stars burn bright in a fathomless black sky.
"I haven't been there recently," said triple gold medalist Johann Olav Koss, the Norwegian who flew to New York last week to accept the Jesse Owens Award in New York, "but I'm sure it's back to what it always was a quiet town. Has it been a year already?" he mused. "It seems as if it all just happened."
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