The year was 1980 and we had just finished dinner in a Lake Placid restaurant when a wise old veteran of Winter Olympics past offered a bit of sage advice to his companions.
"We all moan and groan about it while it's happening," he said after we had each paid $40 for a soggy spaghetti dinner straight out of the can. "But in a few years, we'll only remember the good times."
Winter Olympics are like that.
Watching the Games at home on television, a grand and glorious event unfolds before the eyes of the world. Up close and personal, it's not quite that comfy-cozy, but often it can be compelling.
Have you ever bellied up to a bobsled run, the better to see four guys in a gliding missile roar past, then disappear around the bend in a milli-second?
Ever slogged through miles of traffic on one-lane mountain roads, then trudged halfway up what seems like the Khyber Pass through a foot of snow to catch a daredevil downhiller whoosh by faster than you can blink an eye?
Ever watched the Japanese hockey team against the Russians? Not a pretty sight. Figure skating? Pass the mascara, dah-ling, and don't squoosh the sequins.
Still, as the Calgary Games approach, let's dwell on the good times and the great competition. Let's forget about the greedy money-grubbers who oversold the Innsbruck ski jump and caused fan gridlock and a near-stampede of those panicked to escape. Let's not dwell on the avaricious hustlers of Lake Placid who charged $15 a burger and never did send a shuttle bus. Let's not linger on the snow of Sarajevo, the four-day white-out that caused panic among the television types, already reeling from the early knockout of the '84 U.S. hockey team.
Let us celebrate Franz Klammer, the Austrian demigod who made the trek to the mountains outside of Innsbruck all worth it when he won the Olympic downhill in 1976. Surely you remember his frantic dash down the mountain, several times nearly skidding off the course as he chased the time posted earlier under far better conditions by Bernard Russi of Switzerland.
As the cries of "Franzie, Franzie" echoed down the mountain, Klammer took one last flying leap toward the finish line, tucked his head and flashed across as the clock blinked to a stop, showing he had won by a precious few hundredths of a second.
I was at the bottom of the hill that day covering my first Winter Olympics and, with perhaps one exception four years later, it's the most stirring moment I've ever witnessed. The local hero winning on his home course touched off a joyous celebration on the hill, strangers hugging and kissing, soldiers dropping their weapons and hoisting Klammer to their shoulders.
Almost unnoticed miles and mountains away that same morning, an unknown American made Olympic history by winning a silver medal in cross country skiing, the first American ever to do so in a sport dominated by the Nordic and Eastern bloc nations. There was little fanfare at the time, yet many people believe the boom in cross country skiing in this country that followed was a direct result of Bill Koch's stunning upset, witnessed by hardly anyone in an Alpine woods.
Later in the Games, the chants for Klammer were replaced by the sing-song " Rosi, Rosi" from followers of West Germany's pixie skier, Rosi Mittermaier. All she did was win two golds and a silver and light up any room she occupied with a zillion-kilowatt smile.
One night, I wandered over to a medal ceremony and got goose bumps singing the National Anthem honoring Sheila Young after she won a gold in speed skating. The bumps came back when Dorothy Hamill won the gold in figure skating, and I don't even like figure skating. Too many rhinestones and roses. But not then.
Lake Placid four years later had more of the same. "Keep on glidin', Eric Heiden" became a standing headline in newspapers across America as the greatest speed skater in the history of the sport won a record five gold medals. His little sister's travails and tears after poor little Beth failed to win after a huge pre-Olympic buildup made the family a compelling story.
But the Olympic story of that or any other year involved the Miracle on Ice of the U.S. hockey team. Peach fuzz kids take on Russian Bears and win on a last-period goal by Mike Eruzione, a sensible fellow who knew he never could top that moment and didn't even bother trying to play professionally.
In the press seats that night, one highly regarded sports writer announced to his colleague that all rules of objectivity would take a one-game hiatus. "There will be cheering in the press box," he announced. Hardly anyone disagreed.
The celebration that followed on the victory stand, and a news conference later in the Lake Placid High School auditorium are still vivid in my mind's eye. When I look back at my notebook from that session, it is filled with blank pages save for one. In big block letters, I wrote UNBELIEVABLE!!!!
I keep trying to remember the good times of Sarajevo four years ago, but there were none. The night the Americans lost to the Canadians in hockey, I became ill and never even made it to the opening ceremonies a few days later. That night, in a Yugoslavian hospital, a young doctor offered a long explanation in Serbo-Croation of what he thought my problem was.
When he was finished, I got the translation.
"He can say without a doubt that you are not pregnant."
Give that man a gold medal, and let the Calgary Games begin.