In Case You Still Missed It- 16 Days in Lillehammer, Part IIColumn by Daniel Wang
Associate Sports Editor
The XVIIth Olympic Winter Games came to a close this Sunday. It was a well-hosted event, one that provided many memories, including both the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. Here are some of my observations of events that happened in the second week, as well as others that took place in the first week which didn't make last week's column.
Most of the action, especially for the Americans, happened in skating and skiing. In these Olympic Games, there were many people from around the Boston area, but none from MIT. The two local standouts, both of whom won medals, were speed-skater Eric Flaim of Pembroke and figure skater Nancy Kerrigan of Stoneham, who is currently a student at Emmanuel College, just across the Charles.
I followed much of the speed skating action, and two skaters stand out in my mind: Johann Olav Koss of Norway, who dominated the men's distance races, and Bonnie Blair of the United States, who dominated the women's sprints. The two had similar achievements, but received different treatment.
It blows my mind that Koss has already become a living legend. After his super-human time in the 10,000-meter race, where he shattered his own world record, the Norwegian fans suggested erecting a bronze statue outside of the Viking Ship Hall where the races were held. At least Koss, in his modesty, said, "I suggest that we wait at least 50 years." I don't think Michael Jordan ever received this kind of recognition. Jordan's fans see him as an exceptionally good player, and not a national hero, as Koss seems to be to the Norwegians.
At these Olympics, Bonnie Blair proved to be the best female sprinter in the world, capturing an Olympic double-double by repeating her 500- and 1,000-meter victories of 1992. Moreover, despite being 30 years old, Blair has only lost one race this year. She is even the best American woman at the 1,500-meter, breaking the U.S.- and personal bests at Lillehammer. At that distance, anything but her best, she managed two fourth-place finishes in four Olympics.
Even so, she does not receive enough recognition. People who follow the news might recognize her name, but only consider her to be a good performer. To everybody else, she is relatively unknown. So she may not be as marketable as Michael Jordan, but she is definitely as much of an athlete. All the excitement about Blair will very likely fade away with the excitement of these Olympics. I hope the nation remembers her when the speed skating World Championships come to Milwaukee next year.
Jamaican bobsledders disqualified
Some interesting things happened in the two-man bobsled competition early in the second half of the Games. The U.S. teams were in a race for futility, as the United States continued to be shut out of bobsledding medals. After thousands of hours and dollars, the Americans came to Lillehammer with American-made sleds for the first time in 40 years. When the two American pairs took on the course with their Bo-Dyn sleds, they broke the track record. The only problem was that 16 other sleds broke their record immediately afterwards. Coming in with high hopes, the two U.S. teams could manage only 13th and 14th places.
In their third Olympics, the Jamaican bobsledders were no longer a novelty, but serious competitors. After two runs, their one sled was 25th out of the 43 sleds that finished, ahead of countries such as Russia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Unfortunately, the other Jamaican pair was disqualified when the weight of the crew combined with the sled was seven pounds over the weight limit.
Brakeman Wayne Thomas appeared to have gained all of the weight that pushed them over by seven pounds. Leo Campbell, head of the Jamaican Bobsled Federation, admitted, "Basically, we didn't manage our weight management." Not good for a team looking to touch the world's elite. Thomas' driver, three-time Olympian Dudley Stokes was angry, and had a good reason to be upset.
Things did not fare any better for the Americans in the four-man event. After standing a disappointing tenth place after two runs, the top U.S. team, led by Brian Shimer, was disqualified because the sled's runners were too warm.
The verdict is totally absurd. Three other measurements proved the sled to be legal. The officials could have at least measured it again. Even if the blades were too warm, the problem was not something that could not be fixed right away.
To make things worse, the second U.S. sled suffered the embarrassment of finishing behind the Jamaicans, by one one-hundredth of a seconds. You can consider the result either good for the Jamaicans, who still hit the side walls sometimes, or bad for the Americans. I must honestly say that the finish is not good for athletes who have pursued a medal through countless amounts of money and hours of training.
Unusual events in figure skating
In the Northern Lights Hall, the first and foremost subject that came to mind was the fate of returning figure skating gold medalists. It is great to see they loved competing so much, but things have changed. These athletes, who skipped one or two Olympics after their winning performances, were one for four in regaining gold medals, and two for four in regaining a medal.
Two of them, Katerina Witt and the British pair of Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean, deserved much more than what they received. In the ice dancing competition, Torvill and Dean gave a fine performance, but received low marks, thereby not repeating their gold of 1984. The British press slammed the judges for the scores -- I agree with the British.
Witt, a gold medalist in 1984 and 1988, skated two flawless routines, but received low 5s. She did not even fall! Perhaps the judges thought that while her performance was not bad, it was not good, either. If so, I disagree with them, and find this to be a problem with such a subjective sport.
Hats off to Nancy Kerrigan, who despite missing gold by the slimmest of margins, prevented an American shutout from figure skating medals. If she had not done so, the tale would not have been too good for what is usually the strength of U.S. Winter Olympic teams. Once the skating started, I was pleased to hear very little about the ongoing Kerrigan-Harding soap opera.
The women's figure skating competition in Lillehammer was the most unusual one I have ever seen. I don't need to go into too much detail about it, since you probably know more than I do.
After all the drama, Kerrigan missed the gold medal by one-tenth of a point, by one judge. So that's how the scoring system works, and that is how it has worked for a while. The same system allowed Paul Wylie, by the same margin, to go to Albertville in 1992, and take home a Silver Medal. Kerrigan skated her best, but not perfectly, as did Oksana Baiul. I'm sure the judges went through a great dilemma when deciding the winner.
Did you notice the age differential on the podium? Kerrigan, at 24, was the oldest by far, standing next to the 16-year-old Baiul and the 17-year-old bronze medalist, Chen Lu of China. It would have been quite scary if 13-year old American Michelle Kwan had qualified, and medaled with Baiul and Chen. That is probably what would have happened if the assailant had injured Kerrigan more severely. Too bad for those pursuing the unusual, but expect to see an older and better Kwan in 1998.
"I'm going to Disneyworld." Now it is quite ridiculous that Kerrigan, under the lure of money, decided to punt the Closing Ceremony, just to appear in a parade in Orlando. Does she have no team or Olympic spirit at all? She also skipped the Opening Ceremony. Did the pressure of the competition really get to her that badly?
Hockey full of surprises
Surprise was a big theme of the Olympic competition, and that certainly held true on the ice hockey rink. The biggest surprise turned out to be Finland, which went undefeated before bowing to Canada in the semifinals. In an effort that earned them a bronze medal, the Finns beat the Russians twice, and also beat the Americans. It was interesting that in Albertville, the same country -- not necessarily the same team -- lost to Team U.S.A. 4-1 in pool play. No one could touch this year's Finnish team.
In its two games against Russia, Finland had a combined score of 9-0. I didn't see the bronze medal game, but it proved that the 5-0 embarrassment handed to the Russians in pool play was not a fluke. Finland effectively proved that the Soviet dynasty is dead, not only handing the Russians (or their predecessors) their first ever shutout, but also making these Olympics the first where their hockey team did not medal at all. It is a big sign of change.
The U.S. hockey team certainly had reason to feel disappointed after its performance in Lillehammer. As always, they came in with high hopes, only to start out with three ties in pool play, even if one of them came against a strong Canadian team. They were certainly psyched about playing Finland, hoping to defy the odds, but were simply outplayed, and beaten badly, 6-1.
Team U.S.A. then proceeded to lose to the Czech Republic, another former power fallen, and then dropped a 4-3 decision to Germany for eighth place, its worst result ever. I am willing to bet that, for the players, the scene of the American player sliding and pushing the puck into his own goal will be extremely difficult to forget.
Look out in 1998 -- National Hockey League players might be allowed to compete in the Olympics then. One fellow Tech sports staff member pointed out that if this happens, there could be three "Dream Teams": the best of Canada, the United States, and Russia, especially those who went from past Olympic glory to big bucks in the NHL.
Those who fly
In the individual ski jump events, there were two memorable performances. These Games included several veterans, and this certainly held true for the 120-meter large hill competition. In this event, Jens Weissflog of Germany won two gold medals 10 years apart, despite opposition from younger flyers and a partisan Norwegian crowd. In Sarajevo in 1984, Weissflog won the event off the then-normal hill, 70-meter competition (which no longer exists). This is pretty impressive for someone who was affected by unification, and took a while to master the V-style that later generations picked up, lofting them farther. He had trouble getting it right, but persevered in doing so, as his gold medal performance demonstrates.
The big story of the 90-meter competition was the 1994 champion, Espen Bredeson of Norway. His feat wasn't too bad for someone who finished dead last the last time around. Bredeson is like this past season's Philadelphia Phillies, just one step better.
Now whatever happened to American Jim Holland, who according to VISA, made "the longest ski jump in history," and aimed to make "the second longest jump?" CBS did not show his performances, so I don't know how he jumped. According to the results, however, he seemed to have come up short. In large hill competition, he placed 46th, landing almost a total of 300 feet behind Weissflog. Off the 90-meter hill, Holland wasn't even the best American finisher, placing 48th.
All good things must end
Due to other commitments, I missed most of the Closing Ceremony, but managed to catch the tail end of the action. It was nice to see Dan Jansen carry the flag for the United States, as someone who triumphed over tragedy and frustration. I commend his teammates for electing him to the honor. Of what I did see, the only thing that IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch said, that the crowd did not cheer about, was his declaration of the official closing of the 1994 Olympic Winter Games. It was a sad moment indeed, after a fun two weeks.
After the Olympic flag came down, the Norwegians performers gave a superb show. It is incredible to see all the kids, who sang so well, coordinated and choreographed so well. The Japanese, as host to the next Winter Games, then came to show their stuff. There was a clear contrast of cultures, but the sights and sounds were no less impressive. They essentially gave a good preview of coming attractions. Both the Norwegians and the Japanese who performed, probably spent years preparing for those few minutes in front of the crowd. To spectators like me, all the time and work seemed worthwhile.
Finally, the occasion prompt me to make two more notes. First, good luck to the dogs and their drivers, who recently began their 10,000-mile "Environmental Expedition" from Lillehammer to Nagano, host of the Winter Olympics in 1998. Second, good luck to Sarajevo, the former Olympic host that now lies in shambles. Let's hope its beauty can be restored. Let's hope something like this never happens again.
Looking back, looking ahead
The organizers and the Norwegian supporters made this Olympics one to remember. Not a bad job for such a small country. The Norwegians did not fail at expressing their pride, culture, and interests. Where else would cross-country skiing and speed skating be the events whose tickets were in greatest demand? Where else would you see people camping out the night before, just to see a cross-country skiing race? Where else would nearly all the fans go crazy about the ski jumping competition?
The Norwegian spectators did an excellent job inspiring the athletes to bring out their best. While Norwegians have always been very good at winter sports, they performed even better this time, coming out as the country with the most medals -- 26 in all, with 10 Gold Medals. Not bad for a country which won 20 in Albertville, and only 5 in Calgary. They accomplished the feat with awesome team and national unity.
The medal standings have gone through a great change with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the traditional medal-winning juggernaut in both Winter and Summer Olympics. The Russians did well, but did not come out on top as they used to.
Some former Soviet athletes earned the first Olympic medals ever for their republics, now individual nations. Gold medalists, like Baiul, probably felt more pride in hearing the anthem of their own home country. Indeed, it is better for them, especially since many citizens of the former Soviet Union always felt more attached to their own republic, than to the hammer and sickle.
Most of the U.S. medals came either on the speed skating oval or on the slopes, but the overall performance in other events was not too bad. Indeed, the Americans won 13 medals, the most ever in one Winter Olympics.
The future for American teams in the Winter Olympics is a big mystery right now, as far as I know. The alpine skiers show a lot of potential, with top results by people who are almost certain to return.
The case is different with sports such as speed skating, especially with the women. For the past three Olympics, Bonnie Blair was virtually the entire team, and fortunately for the Red, White, and Blue, able to come away with gold medals each time. There was no one else, and if that continues to be the case, the Americans might not see many results in the future.
There were many veterans who competed in Lillehammer, most of whom were competing in their last Olympics. With what I have seen, there will not be much after the veterans are removed. For the U.S. teams to do well in future competitions, more interest will have to be generated.
Americans can compete with the world's best in almost all winter sports, even in events such as the biathlon and cross-country skiing. The United States does have facilities and coaches that match the world's best, or at least come close. All that is needed is someone who has enough of "the love" (as Reebok puts it) to seek them out, take full advantage of them, and give his (or her) all, perhaps more.
During the second half of the Olympics, the media did a better job of hiding the outcomes until prime time. At least that's how I saw things, as I missed the morning shows. The radio station that woke me up with Olympic results, WBUR, either stopped broadcasting such news, or did so when I was not listening.
Things were still good with CBS and TNT, which did not give anything away too soon, for those who wanted to wait and see for themselves. I still got results before they appeared on television, by looking at USENET newsgroups. Perhaps the only exception may have been CBS Radio airing the women's figure skating competition live. Most people I overheard already knew these results before CBS televised the action.
It is unfortunate that the Olympics have become so commercialized. Commercials seemed to be too important for CBS, which showed one performance, then three or four commercials, before returning to the action. There was too much skipping around, not good for people like me, who turn on the set to see sports.
I liked seeing the gold medal ceremonies for all the Americans who come out on top. I wonder if NBC (not CBS, fortunately) will do the same for the Summer Olympics, when the Star-Spangled Banner will be played many, many more times. In any case, let's see if the people and the organizers in both Atlanta, in summer 1996 and Nagano in winter 1998 can do better. The Norwegians have definitely put up quite a standard to follow.
In closing, just think of how much I could tell you about these Olympics if I were actually there. If you have believed that my columns have been pointless, you are fortunate that the Olympics are over, for you will hear no more from me (I hope). Not until 1996. ...
Well, now that the Olympics are over, I can go back to work. Then again, the NCAA Basketball Tournament will begin soon. ...