Until Franz Klammer did his kamikaze run down that mountain in 1976, I never had a conversation with anyone about the winter Olympics. Even with Klammer to talk about, it wasn't really a conversation in the sense that the conversationalists shared insights and developed arguments from a common pool of knowledge and biases. It was more a breathless linkage of exclamations.
"Klammer! Y'see Klammer? I never saw anything like that!"
"Me either! The guy was on one ski half the way!"
"And bouncing all over the place! They said he was going about 80 miles per hour! If he had fallen, he'd be in little pieces!"
"And it looked like he was going to buy the farm at every pole!"
Franz Klammer, Austria's national hero, had made the damnedest ski run of all time to win a gold medal in the '76 winter Olympics in his own country. Unlucky in the draw for starting position, he was one of the last down the hill, which meant he had to ski through ruts cut into the snow by earlier men. He had only one run to win the gold medal and keep his nation's heart. And he started badly.
When Klammer heard a report of his time for the first third of the run, he knew his only chance at victory then was to dare the laws of physics and good sense. He saved nothing, flying like crazy down that mountain on first this ski, then that one, bouncing off the moguls and twisting around the markers, snow and ice whooshing from under his skis as he risked his neck -- literally risked his neck, because downhill racers who crash at 80 mph sometimes don't walk away. He risked his neck on the last chance he would ever have to win an Olympic gold medal in his homeland.
And he won it. Next to the first and third Ali-Frazier fights, which are beyond compare, the Klammer run remains the most breathtaking sports event I've ever seen. The man was out of control! Flying down a mountain! On two skinny boards!
There I go again. Exclamation points. Good writing needs no exclamation points. Miss Swinford taught me that in the 11th grade. But then, Miss Swinford never saw Franz Klammer. Anyway, how am I, a kid from a corn town in central Illinois, supposed to express my admiration for Klammer if I can't use exclamation points?
I know nothing about skiing.
I know nothing about any sport in the winter Olympics.
But I know I'm seeing something wonderful when I see Franz Klammer flying . . . or Dorothy Hamill dancing on ice . . . or Heinrich Ulritzsche (to make up a name) laying his body on a teeny-tiny sled (called a "luge," for some reason) and riding it 80 mph down a tube of sheet ice.
The great majority of Americans do not grow up with winter sports. Flopping on a sled outside the house may be the closest we come to trying a winter Olympics game. I was on ice skates once, only long enough to discover my ankles were made of spaghetti. My favorite winter sport was waiting for Santa.
But even if I thought a puck was the child of a platypus and a duck, I nevertheless watched the winter Olympics on television faithfully. I believed that if I watched long enough, pretty soon something would make sense.
And here came Franz Klammer clattering down the mountain!
If we transported Nolan Ryan to rural Yugoslavia and had him pump a few 100 mph fast balls past a farmer's ear into a haystack, chances are the natives would have no idea what this strange American was doing.
Whatever it was, though, they would know it wasn't something they saw every day in downtown Belgrade.
They would take their breath in short gulps. They would pronounce the name: No-lan Ry-an. They would wonder how he made that little white ball disappear so quickly. And the Yugoslavian sportswriters would use lots of exclamation points!
At the 1976 summer Olympics in Montreal, I visited the Liechtenstein camp. Liechtenstein had six athletes in the games -- Liechtenstein, a tiny dot of a country on Austria's border with Switzerland. They gave me flags and maps and told me how Liechtenstein's national railroad was 5 1/2 miles long.
I asked my host, Rudolf Schadler, the Olympic boss from Liechtenstein, who his country's national sports heroes were.
"Hanni Wenzel and Willy Frommelt," he said quickly.
"Could you spell them for me?" I asked.
Rudolph was crestfallen. "You've never heard of Hanni and Willy?"
Turns out they were wonderful skiers who won bronze medals in the winter Olympics that year. Of Liechtenstein's 22,000 residents, 15,000 lined the roads when Hanni and Willy came home. A spectacle.
The spectacle of the winter Olympics is all anyone really needs to know. Remarkable athletes have worked for years to get to the top of that insane ski-jump thing at Lake Placid. Someone has passed up lots of Saturday nights out so he can ride the mysterious luge.
Whether or not we know the rules and the tactics and the jargon, we know when we see an athlete saving nothing for tomorrow. And in the Olympics, no one saves anything. Not Franz Klammer, not Hanni and Willy. the bounty on their heads, but they'll never laugh with you. They don'