Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Five Rings: Non-Medal Winter Olympic Moments-Part II

Posted By on Tue, Feb 16, 2010 at 5:16 PM

Easily the most fun Winter Olympics I ever worked were the 1988 Calgary Games. The organizers of those Games came up with the brilliant idea of erecting a big tent at most venues for pre- and post-event parties. Granted, the pre-event parties were more coffee-and-donut affairs, but the post-event parties were like mini Mardi Gras celebrations particularly when a crowd of spectators from the nation whose athletes had done well that day showed up ready to let 'er rip. And they did.

Weaving my way back home on a path along the Bow River after the post men's 30-kilometer cross-country celebratory party at the Canmore Nordic Centre, I came on odd sight- five fur-glad Russians surrounding a fifth person who had stripped down to his briefs.

For a second, he stood in the sub zero temperatures in his Soviet version of tighty whities before tiptoeing down the riverbank in his bare feet and diving into the river. After a short swim, the man got out of the water and crawled back up to his friends who thrust a bottle of vodka in his hands.

"It's bet," one of the fur-glad Russians said to me in his best English, "If boy he coach gets medal, he swim."

I dismissed swimming as a way to stay fit during the Games in favor of cross-country skiing on the Spray Lakes trail network a few kilometers above Canmore. Everything was going along smoothly until I ran two armed men blocking the trail.

"So this is how it all ends," I said to myself, "Not with a whimper, but with bang."

The gun-toting gents quickly explained that they weren't there to shoot but to kick everyone off the trail system, all 35 kilometers of it, while Great Britain's Princess Anne got in her afternoon workout.

I've always wondered if the princess was surprised that she never got passed or passed anyone during her workout.

So much for that it was time to drive to a Calgary suburb for dinner at a house rented by a ski company to entertain clients and the press during the Games. At dinner, the ski company 's president announced that Italian alpine ski slalom superstar Italian Alberto Tomba said he might drop by the house that evening.

Having been given an assignment by a New York fashion magazine to try and get a photo of playboy Tomba off the slopes in a party setting, this looked like a chance to get the "big" shot.

Tomba finally arrived accompanied by the squeal of tires and the slamming of car doors. He burst into the house and headed straight for the living room where he gave everyone the Euro two-cheek kiss hello.

Sensing that this would be one of those in-out wham-bang celeb walk throughs, I begged two attractive women who had arrived at the house just after Tomba to stand by the front door for ten seconds.

They agreed just as Tomba came striding toward the door yelling "Ciao" at the top of his lungs. I got his attention, pointed to the girls and my camera and he obligingly put his arms around both them and smiled happily. Two shots and he was gone.

Tomba's ritual house tour took all of one minute and fifteen seconds. The images made it into print two days later and a nice check awaited me when I got back to Oregon.

That was it for celebrity moments other than when the King and Queen of Sweden deigned to come to the cross-country ski venue party tent after one of their countrymen (Gunde Svan) won the men's 50-kilometer race.

I would have asked the queen dance, but those scary secret service guys who had guarded Princess Anne had switched allegiance to Sweden and had her majesty surrounded.

Moving west and fourteen years later, the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City will always stand out in memory because of me being bamboozled big time.

It happened at the men's 30-kilometer race on a picture perfect clear, cold winter day trackside where I was joined by my best pal from Rhinelander, Wisconsin and a couple of old friends from California.

Some sixty skiers surged forth in a mass start and within the first 500 meters the German-turned-Spaniard, Johann Muhlegg had charged ahead. By the time he reached the long kilometer plus uphill where we were stationed, he had a 100-meter lead on the field.

By lap two of four, he had a 300-meter lead. It was then I got out my cell phone and called Gary Bonacker back at Sunnyside Sports in Bend.

"Gary, I've never seen anything like it," I yelled, "This guy is destroying the field. It's like Jordan scoring a hundred points against the best team in the NBA or some African distance runner winning the New York Marathon by 10 minutes. It's the most lopsided and impressive win in the history of cross-country ski competition."

And I was there to witness it and had made some great action images. Ca-ching.

Well, not so fast. After the race my friends and I went for an informal ski with retired Norwegian superstar Bjorn Daehlie, the most medal-winning Winter Olympics athlete in history.

That evening, at dinner my friend from Wisconsin asked Daehlie what he thought of Mulegg's performance earlier in the day.

"Well," Daehlie said calmly, "He seemed to have had a bit of assistance."

Looking back my friend from Wisconsin says: "I'll never forget Daehlie's discomfort afterwards in talking about it. I thought at the time he was simply miffed about the Norwegian boys not doing well but I felt that he somehow knew that Muhlegg was juiced."

Juiced? Turns out Muhlegg was running on jet fuel while his competitors were running on low-octane unleaded. He got caught and his 30-kilometer, and later his 50-kilometer, gold medals were taken away. And I still have some 40 valueless images of him and feel cheated after thinking his performance was extraordinary.

Far better in one sense, but equally deflating in another, was an experience at the 1980 Lake Placid Games with a "clean" skier.

I arrived at Placid feeling pretty fit having trained hard knowing that there'd be little time for any form of exercise, save for schlepping camera gear to venues, once the Games began.

I decided to get in one last cross-country ski before the games started and to do it on the designated Olympic 15-kilometer course.

It was a gorgeous sunny afternoon as I skied off at what I considered race pace. With burning lungs and sweat pouring down my face I had just gone by the 12-kilometer mark when I was passed by then reigning world 50 - kilometer champion Sven Ake-Lundback of Sweden.

I knew it was Lundback because of his skiing style that had been described by one of his coaches as: "Like a monkey having sex with a basketball."

Whatever his style, he went by me like I was standing still and quickly faded out of sight.

That night Lundback and his wife Lena came for a sauna and dinner at the house where I was staying. After dinner, I mentioned that I'd seen him out training that day and wondered if he was skiing at race pace.

"No," he replied, "I was just having a relaxed tour."

"A relaxed tour." It was then I that there was this immense gulf between the cross-country sport's greats and way back, also-rans like me. Any thought that I could really ski fast was dashed.

And that feeling only got worse as Lundback proved to be a middle of the pack skier at those Games.

I began to wonder what it would have been like to be passed by one of the medal winners. The wind they generated would have probably knocked me ten yards off the tracks into the soft snow only to be buried and found frozen solid during the spring thaw.

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