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Puff! Snowboarding Goes Up in Smoke

By Michael Wilbon
Washington Post Columnist
Thursday, February 12, 1998; Page C1

Michael Wilbon

NAGANO — Dude, have you ever seen a sport go from being the ultimate in cool to totally in the dumper faster than snowboarding? Coming into the Winter Games it was the official Sport of the Hip. At this moment, it's joke city. Have you heard the name of the new snowboarding event? Super-J. Ha ha. Can you believe the next phase of the competition — really and truly — is called the "halfpipe"?

See if you can come up with a worse start than this: Canadian Ross Rebagliati, the first gold medal winner in a new Olympic sport that is controversial and chock full of renegades, rebels and non-conformists, has to forfeit after testing positive for marijuana. Now I'm thinking back to that opening news conference when one of the U.S. snowboarders talked about "ripping some powder, dude." Can I have that snowboarding glossary again?

Don't expect Canada's Olympic delegates to vote for any more Games to be held in Asia. In Seoul 10 years ago, Ben Johnson had to forfeit his gold medal in the 100 meters because he tested positive for steroids. As I recall, Johnson's excuse was that his personal doctor had injected juice into his water bottle without his knowledge. Given snowboarders' hatred of any authority figure, I was hoping Rebagliati was going to blame Kenneth Starr for starting a right-wing conspiracy.

It turned out to be a lot less complicated than that. Rebagliati said he didn't exactly smoke the joint, he was just in the same room where others were getting high. This is what we're calling the Reverse Clinton explanation. The president, you'll recall, had the joint in his mouth but didn't inhale, while Dude didn't have the joint in his mouth but did inhale.

Of course, everybody's divided into camps over this, as is mandatory at the Olympics. I say punish the kid by putting him in a straitjacket and making him sit at the rink and watch ice dancing for 20 straight hours. Tony "I Still Have My Ticket Stub From Woodstock" Kornheiser reports from Washington, where it is still yesterday: "If a guy can smoke dope and still go that fast, they not only should let him keep the medal, they should build a statue of him."

At least the Canadian snowboarders have medals to take away. Was it really less than a week ago that one of the U.S. snowboarders, Rosey Fletcher, said, "I think we're going to kick some real butt here"? Maybe I misunderstood her and she really said, "I think we're going to slip on our butts here." Not only have the U.S. riders not won anything, they haven't come close to winning anything.

It's like the American athletes were all in some half-week time warp. Going into Wednesday morning, we had the same number of medals as Kenya: none. At the moment, we've been doubled up and then some (5-2) by Austria, a country half the size of Fairfax. What makes it tough to swallow is that the U.S. team had its best Winter Games performance in Lillehammer four years ago.

It was so bad here for a while that even people too closely involved with winter sports in America were being contaminated. Five Capitals made the trip to play for their respective nations in hockey, three (Olie the Goalie, Bonzai and Richard Zednik) already are eliminated from medal contention. Poor Olie: Guy flies 17 hours from Washington, with a stop for refueling and Twinkies in Alaska, only to get off the plane and find out his German teammates had been bounced before he could lace up his skates. Zednik, because of goofy international roster rules, had to watch helplessly for one more game as Bondra gamely but unsuccessfully tried to keep Slovakia from being eliminated. We were about to officially become sorry, no-account Americans when Jonny Moseley and then Picabo Street skied to the rescue.

In all, it's hard to get a more emotional day in the first week of the Winter Olympics (don't dare mention figure skating). If any athlete deserved empathy it was Japan's Masahiko Harada, whom most every scouting report had winning the gold medal in the 90-meter ski jump. Only he didn't. He collapsed just like in Lillehammer, walked toward a group of Japanese reporters and said, "I guess I betrayed your expectations." Right now Harada is Bill Buckner. Two straight Games and he's been frozen at the wrong time.

Unfortunately, you'll pretty much have to take my word for it because it comes to my attention that just about all you're seeing is — drum roll — figure skating! What a shock. Pairs, ice dancing, short program, long program — Aaaaaagh!

If CBS wants to televise 16 straight days of figure skating, then have the guts to tell people, "Look, we're not going to show you much other than Ice Capades," and be done with it. Don't allege you're going to cover the Winter Olympics and show us some lame couple gazing into each other's eyes while Picabo Street is going 70 mph down a hill in the greatest race of her life!

With the big downhill events and the headliners in men's hockey just about to get started, I want to tell you to stay tuned but that wouldn't help you follow the true drama of the Winter Games, now would it?

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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