Winter Games can just seem so-foreign


February 12, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

MERIBEL, France -- At a lunch buffet the other day, an intrepid American reporter spoke French to the young woman behind the cash register. This despite a large hole in his foreign language education.

Pointing to the slice of duck on his plate, he attempted to say: "I love duck."

But his French grammar was tangled and it came out: "I love, you, my duck."

All of which sums up the very American problem of trying to make sense of these very foreign Winter Olympics. A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing.

It's best either to know all the inside skinny -- a cultural impossibility for state- siders -- or be as dumb as a cow, your mind uncluttered by any insights other than a) snow is cold, and b) the fastest bonehead down the mountain wins.

You're fine right there, see: dumb and happy. The danger lies in knowing, if you will, something more than nothing. Un peu. A little bit. Such as just enough French to call a young woman a waterfowl.

The same toe-stubbing occurs when you tiptoe beyond the restraining ropes of ignorance and attempt to understand these hopelessly alien Olympics.

It isn't that the sports are less complicated than ours. In fact, ours are worse. (Try explaining the infield fly rule to a man from Munich or Paris. Understanding the bobsled is a breeze by comparison. One rule only: Try to go fast, not on your head.)

But we get in trouble here because we're just too far behind. These sports, like most, are stacked high with insider stuff going back decades. It's not unlike trying to play a chess grandmaster when you don't know a pawn from a king. You're better off not trying.

Take skiing, for instance. The standard meat for post-race analysis is not who choked and who didn't, but what the results proved about the length and cut of various ski brands, waxes and methods of wax application.

A word to the wise couch potato: You're better off not asking one question about this. Once you do, you open the door to another question, which leads to another door, which leads to another door, which leads to another and another and another.

Pretty soon, you're a hundred doors deep, foolishly overeducated and impossibly confused. You're better off just laughing at the fans standing there in the cold, and maybe coming to this kind of safe conclusion: "Look, honey, we did bad again this year."

See, after the men's downhill Sunday, I made the mistake of asking an Austrian journalist about ski lengths. Something was going on about using long or short ones at the top of the hill, and something controversial the winner did.

Well, it depends on which wax you use, the friendly Austrian explained (for the next hour). Certain brands of skis and waxes respond better to ice on warm days, he said. It's all in the mix. The mix and your waxer.

My response: Check, please.

I was more likely to learn fluent Latin from scratch during a three-martini lunch than understand this spectacular pool of glop.

Skiing is far from the only trouble spot, of course. You think you understand the luge and boblsed, right? Looks simple enough, right? Well,here is a little bit of knowledge to mush your mind:

Racing talent doesn't matter half as much as sled design. That's what the Euro-insiders say. They spend hours talking about planing and frontal blockage and groove capabilities and intersecting lines of wind resistance.

Check, please.

Basically, the sport is won and lost by downloadin' aerodynamic freaks wearing clip-on ties. You're better off just putting on your Jamaica Bobbin' sweat shirt and gathering the kids around the set for a fun lesson in consonants. ("No, sweetie, you don't ride a Horst.")

Basically, the average American can't take a step at the Winter Olympics without being exposed to a dangerous attack of expertise.

Speed skaters bore by the score with their endless debate over whether it's better or worse to start in the inside lane, or if chipped ice is better for power or finesse skaters. There's a lot of blade talk, too. You don't want to know.

Neither do you want to know what really happens in the biathlon, which is indecipherable to begin with. But biathletes don't even talk about skiing and shooting. They talk about heart rates. It's won and lost down in the heart rates, fans.

Figure skating? You could start and finish graduate school in the time it takes to learn the difference between a triple Axel and a triple Salchow and a triple toe loop. By then you'd be so confused you'd have forgotten the basic premise: If you don't fall on your butt, you win.

So, do the right thing and keep it simple, folks. It's anti-intellectualism, but it's the only choice when you're as far behind as we are. If you start asking questions, you might end up falling in love with a duck.

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