Every four years, it is borne in us that Olympics are more interesting than primaries.
Presidential candidates are doing something difficult, no question about it. They put in punishing days and, like the athletes, are constantly having mikes and questions thrust in their faces about how they feel, after they have tumbled or prevailed, as the case may be.
Here's the big difference: the candidates may be doing the difficult, but the athletes are doing the impossible. Who could be catapulted into space, do a triple somersault, and land on two narrow strips of wood strapped to the ankles? Or, from a standing start, hurl the body into the air, do three complete turns and light on the thin blade of one skate. Politicians do flip-flops, of course, but it isn't the same.
Our side has not been doing so well. It hasn't been all bad. We have to be grateful not to be hearing the grating, boastful "We're Number One" chant of the superpatriots in the 1984 summer games, when the Soviets wouldn't play and we walked off with all the gold. This year, we're learning to be good sports.
Our young teams have shown us the way. If they gave medals for heartbreak, we'd be out of sight. And we have to say that our athletes have done far better than the supposedly mature, middle-aged men who wish to be their leaders, in accepting reversal.
Take Pam Fletcher, our best woman downhill skier. She had her leg broken -- and not even in competition. She was doing a practice run on the course and she collided with someone who was supposed to be helping, a volunteer course worker. She did better than Sen. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) when he got knocked down by Vice President Bush in the New Hampshire primary. As she sat in the snow amid her shattered dreams, she allowed it was "a bummer."
"I could get hysterical," she added, "but what would that do?" Exactly.
Dan Jansen, the speed skater, fell down as he headed home in the 1,000-meter race. His mother covered her face with her hands. So did we all. Jansen had fallen before in the 500-meter the day that his sister Jane died back home in West Allis, Wis. But Jansen, while devastated, did not whine or snarl. He thanked people for their support, and the outpouring of donations for his sister's children. As for the bad luck of it -- he caught the edge of his skate blade on the ice -- he said bravely, "It happens to everybody sometime."
In the snow and on the ice, things seemed clean and exhilarating, and, unlike the primaries, produced clear winners. The semantic wrestling over who loves Reagan more or the oil-import tax less or who voted for a conference report on a tax cut seems a bit dry. Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis tried to borrow Olympic glamor by promising to "go for the gold" in the New Hampshire primary. Alas, the simultaneously televised returns robbed his followers of a truly golden moment, the disciplined floating and leaping of the Soviet figure-skaters, Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov.
The U.S. hockey team, which emulated so many of the political contenders in having a fiercely aggressive strategy but no depth in defense, had the heaviest psychological burden. Every U.S. hockey Olympian is haunted by the mythic 1980, 4-to-3 victory over the Soviets. In these days of detente it is less important, of course, especially since the National Hockey League is going to import Soviet hockey stars. Still, the Yanks played their hearts out and exhibited the will to win even when the puck was not in play. During their game with the Norwegians, you could see at the corner of your screen at any given time a Norwegian and an American quietly trying to kill each other.
The acrimony and bitterness evinced about who kept whom from the starting line in the two-man Dallas GOP debate was reflected in the U.S. speed-skating team and its litigation over who should start first. One skater plaintively asked how he could concentrate when he had to talk to his lawyer so much.
Another echo of the reputedly real world was the "two-man candidacy" of Brian Orser and Brian Boitano over the figure-skating gold. The sight of Orser in torment while Boitano brought down the house with his perfection made Bush's "tension city" comment about his squabble with Dan Rather seem a little tinny.
Possibly, four years hence, we will end the unfair competition. New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo has suggested that we keep the results of first primaries sealed, to keep later voters from being influenced by early returns. Or maybe we should film the primary and shelve the footage until the Brian Boitanos and other poets of ice and snow are off the screen and we can concentrate on what prosaic fellow should get the championship in the political bobsled races.