CALGARY, FEB. 13 -- Lyle Nelson, a little known sportsman competing in an obscure sport, carried the U.S. flag and led the U.S. team in today's opening ceremonies of his last Winter Olympics. The 39-year-old biathlete called the moment his finest in a long but seldom noticed career that has spanned four Winter Games.
Nelson was chosen to carry the flag by a vote of team captains, because he was thought to best exemplify the Olympic spirit. He is a major in the National Guard and is pursuing his doctorate in psychology while training for the biathlon. In 14 years of competition, he has struggled for every dime of training money, and once lived on $2,800 a year, pushing loads of gravel up a hill for work. He has never gotten close to winning a medal.
"Flag bearers don't always come in as medal hopes," U.S. Olympic Committee spokesman Mike Moran said. "This guy represents what a lot of us feel is still the Olympic movement. He has no future in pro sports, he's not going to be on a late night talk show or do car commercials."
Nelson led the United States in the parade of athletes to wild applause from the crowd of 60,000 at McMahon Stadium, where all the flags were officially raised, the oaths administered, and the torch lit. The U.S. flag whipped around him in 30 mph gusts, but he held it straight with one hand.
"If I was 20, I'd say I was stoked," he said. His thoughts, he said, were, "Don't turn left when everyone else turns right."
For most of the athletes, it was high time these Olympic Games got under way after months upon months of training. Some athletes came in only for the opening ceremonies, departing to wait out the days until their competition begins, at home in their own beds and training areas. Premier U.S. figure skater Debi Thomas was flying back to Colorado Springs Sunday because her competition doesn't begin until Feb. 24. But Jill Watson and Peter Oppegard, world bronze medalists in pairs skating, will be among the first to compete when that event begins at 8 p.m. Sunday.
"We're glad it's here after waiting and waiting," Oppegard said.
Slalom skier Tiger Shaw, a six-year veteran of the national team, found it something of a distraction from training, but also a rare, exhilarating occasion when a large body of people come to roar their approval for athletes who don't generally hear that kind of noise.
"It's incredible to walk in the stadium and see all those people cheering," he said. "It's like being a pro football player or something. It's incredible to be right in the middle of it."
Nelson is a veteran of parades, having graduated from West Point, and a veteran of Olympics, having competed in the last three. This one, however, was beyond all the others by virtue of his role, and because it is his last. "It far outweighs anything I've done in the Olympics," he said.
Nelson has rarely heard that kind of applause, no one does in his little watched sport that combines cross country skiing and marksmanship. He won't again: After the games, Nelson will complete his doctorate in human development and start trying to make a living. He subsists now by going on active duty with the National Guard and by giving seminars in motivational and performance psychology.
Even that modest income is a vast improvement over his early years in international competition, when he lived at Olympic training centers and got by on a couple of thousand dollars a year. He took any job available as long as it was hard manual labor that would keep him in shape, like digging sewer lines. "Recreation was a new pair of running shoes," he said. He once ran from Washington, D.C., to Montreal for fun. It took three days.
For all of that, perhaps his best performance in an Olympics came in 1984 when he was 14th fastest in a relay. But being an Olympian was reward enough for an athlete who came out of the small logging town of McCall, Idaho, near Boise. With a big cross country skiing community, McCall has produced 10 Olympians, and that is what got Nelson into the biathlon. After school, a bus from the local mill would take young skiers to a nearby hill for coaching.
"My neighbor was an Olympian," said Nelson, who now lives in Essex, Vt. "I always knew I could be one if I wanted to."
The poverty level in a sport that does not have the benefit of big corporate sponsorships, and the difficulty of full-time training while getting his doctorate and being married, have convinced Nelson that it's time to get serious about making a living. In his last Olympics, the best he can probably hope for is a top-20 finish, and that is if he has extremely good days when he competes in the 10-kilometer on Feb. 23 and the relay on Feb. 26.
"I don't have a trust fund," he said. "I'm not willing to be broke at this stage of my life to pursue the Olympic dream. I'm not willing to drive a '63 Buick anymore. I need a safe car and college tuition."
Over the years Nelson has seen a number of changes in the Olympics, from sheer size of the affair to the new glasnost movement in the Soviet Union. That has made the Soviet athletes warmer than they were 12 or 14 years ago, when they would sneak to his room in the middle of the night to trade clothing without team officials' knowledge. Now, they have parties together: He said the biathletes from the U.S. United States and U.S.S.R. intend to have a get-together at some point here to swap everything from caviar and fur hats to jeans and pizza.
But one thing that hasn't changed, and isn't likely to, is the low profile of the biathlon. Nelson is the first biathlete to carry the flag for the United States, bringing the sport some uncommon if brief attention.
"I don't think after carrying the flag it's going to become the NFL," he said.