Winter Olympics


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These Games Hold Winter Wonders

By Michael Wilbon
Washington Post Columnist
Thursday, February 5, 1998; Page C1

 Michael Wilbon
NAGANO — I am supposed to be having basketball withdrawal right now. I'm not. Duke plays North Carolina tonight, and the NBA All-Star Weekend begins in less than 48 hours. I don't care. We've got our own excitement building here, our own drama, the thrill of victory and the agony of being suspected of having too much testosterone, which we'll come back to in a minute.

If nothing else is any good at these Winter Games, hockey will be. If you think they play hockey in the NHL, watch the Olympics and see how a different style may impress you even more. You'll be better able to appreciate skills that are often obscured in the clutch-and-grab, fight-obsessed world of North American pro hockey. This is going to be, plain and simple, the best hockey tournament ever put on anywhere at any time. Canada, the U.S., Sweden, Russia, Finland or the Czech Republic could wind up winning this thing. Canada will be the favorite because it has the three best goaltenders in the world. But what the Canadians and everyone else will play here won't even look like the same game, what with the international game's bigger ice surface, no thugging, and an emphasis on skills.

Don't wait until the medal games for some sugary-sweet clicheğd story of the scrappy U.S. playing some menacing power from afar. All these teams are loaded and the U.S. players could be out of here before the finals if they're not sharp from Day One.

In many respects, hockey could lord over these Games in the same way the Dream Team was The Story of the 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona. Even so, there are other stories, from the poignant to the absurd.

There's Brian Shimer, the U.S. bobsledder who before our very eyes is turning into the new Dan Jansen. In 1988, in Calgary, Shimer was too young and inexperienced to make a dent. But in 1992 the Herschel Walker fiasco engulfed him, too. And in 1994, the runners on his four-man sled were too hot, which is the embarrassing equivalent of being kicked out for using too much pine tar. Now, at 35, tests made it appear initially he had high testosterone levels, which might be pretty cool for, say, me, but not for an Olympic athlete facing strict doping regulations. So here was big, burly Shimer sobbing his eyes out here Wednesday for fear people would think he was a cheater. "Hopefully, people won't look at me as if a black cloud is hanging over my head," he said. This was after he already had said of his hormones: "I was thinking I was a vibrant, raging bull. . . . But I find out it's just the opposite."

If Shimer's saga is too serious for you, you'll probably like everything about snowboarding. Imagine surfing on snow. Wasn't it only a few years ago we thought the "X-Games" were the stupidest thing in the world? The snobbier resorts banned snowboarders for several years, and there are three or four resorts in the U.S. right now that haven't lifted the ban. Yet, it's an Olympic sport for the first time. Revenge of the Dudes. It's like inviting Snoop Dogg to the Metropolitan Opera. Snowboarding is the anti-sport. You know what the big flap is here? The snow surfer dudes don't want to wear the uniforms they were issued by the U.S. Olympic Committee, the $3,900 worth of red-white-and-blue stuff spectators are offering scalpers' prices for. The request for a "team dinner" is treated like the madly repressive act of an overbearing authority figure. All they want to wear is tattoos and body rings, which makes you wonder what Dennis Rodman is doing during the all-star break.

Leave it to snowboarding to provide the first official renegade of the Nagano Games. A kid named Terje Haakonsen-called the Michael Jordan of snowboarding-compared the International Olympic Committee to the mafia and simply decided to boycott the Olympics. That'll show 'em.

If you can't have Charles Barkley at the Winter Olympics, the next best thing is to have the one-and-only Alberto Tomba, the only man who's retired more than Ray Leonard. Tomba says at the end of every Olympics ('92 in Albertville, '94 in Lillehammer) that he's retiring, just like Barkley during the playoffs, only to show up the next time. Hey, Tomba's got time to fill between now and this summer when he begins shooting a police thriller flick in which he plays a bodyguard. At least Tomba, a slalom specialist, doesn't have to ski against Austrian Hermann Maier, who's favored to win gold medals in the downhill and Super-G.

If you need a local-boy-made-good to root for, look no farther than our own Michael Weiss. I'm already partial to Weiss not just because he's my neighbor in Fairfax, but because he's publicly come out against ice skaters competing in sequins. This could be the biggest innovation in figure skating since Dick Button performed the first double Axel in the 1948 Winter Olympics. (No, wait! Since the first triple loop he trotted out in '52!) Weiss says he wants to make skating appealing to the football player in all of us. He talks about pumping iron and smoking cigars. Maybe Weiss should think about snowboarding in his spare time.

This is probably as good a time as any to re-declare my general disdain for figure skating, except for Weiss, of course. Yes, skaters are wonderfully athletic. Yes, figure skating is a spectacle. Yes, it's as tense, as competitive, as dramatic an event as one could ask. But I've got a problem getting really worked up over folks who, while they're competing, are dressed like dinner mints. You want women on ice? Call CBS and demand more air time for women's hockey, which is also making its Olympic debut. There's already a budding rivalry because the U.S. women have lost four straight world championships to Canada. Give me women chasing pucks over Michelle Kwan vs. Tara Lipinski any day, and uniforms over sequins.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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