Old pressures and new world politics define Games

JOHN EISENBERG

February 24, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

ALBERTVILLE, France -- These were the Winter Olympics of politics and pressure. You could barely take a step without bumping into an athlete whose story was somehow intertwined with a country rising, falling or merging. And everywhere, as much a constant as snow in the mountains, there was pressure.

The Olympics are always about pressure, of course. These athletes practice four years for defining moments that often last less than a minute. It's twisted logic impossible to reconcile, and it can shatter when joined by the burden of expectation. These Olympics were particularly full of athletes who did, and did not, handle a high dose.

Midori Ito didn't. The Japanese figure skater has reached a level of acclaim and adulation few Japanese women do, but the knowledge that her entire country expected gold was just too much.

Favored because of her ability to land the rare and difficult triple Axel, she panicked and pulled the Axel from her original program at the last minute. It was as if the Chicago Bulls had decided not to use Michael Jordan in the NBA Finals.

After she fell on the substituted jump, ruining her gold chances, she was cornered by the 50 Japanese journalists here to report her every move. A reaction, Midori? "I'm sorry," she said, apologizing to a country.

Then there was no-blink Bonnie Blair, the speed skating sprinter and only American clearly favored to win here. She handled the pressure as Roger Clemens would: with a volley of fastballs at the knees. Two golds, no problem. Pressure? Where?

Toni Nieminen, a child from Finland, also handled it. Pressured by the knowledge that he needed a monster jump to turn a bronze medal into a gold in the team ski jump event, he flew through the air like Peter Pan, jumping 5 yards farther than anyone else -- and became the youngest gold medalist in Winter Olympic history, at 16.

Alberto Tomba, the Italian skiing Elvis, handled the suffocating pressure of delivering for a fanatical following that would accept nothing less than gold. Ray LeBlanc, the American hockey goalie, handled two weeks of steam-pipe pressure. His team played rope-a-dope, letting the other teams shoot until they gave out. LeBlanc had to carry every day, and almost did.

Then there were others who, like Ito, just couldn't take it. Dan Jansen was swallowed alive by the memory of his twin falls of 1988. Duncan Kennedy and Cammy Myler, the first U.S. lugers with medal hopes, finished out of the medals. Not one of the favored men's and ladies' singles skaters performed as expected.

The Duchesnays, the French ice dancing couple of whom so much was expected, skated so scared and stiff on the first night that they blew their gold in the first minute. "So much stress," Paul Duchesnay said.

The U.S. hockey coach, Smilin' Dave Peterson, couldn't handle the pressure of losing a big game to the Unified Team. He embarrassed himself by blaming the loss on a Swedish conspiracy. So did team captain Clark Donatelli. But Donatelli had the grace to apologize the next day. Peterson didn't.

Paul Wylie offered an example of what is possible when there's no pressure. Given no chance before the men's skating, the last competition of his career, he smiled on the ice when everyone else was frowning and slipping. He won a silver medal.

Wylie, the happiest man here, then spent the rest of the Olympics leading cheers for other Americans, particularly the hockey team. He was joined in his cheerleading at the Unified game -- by a man wearing a CCCP jacket and a rubber Gorbachev mask, waving an American flag.

Such was the backdrop of these Games. The new world was perpetually in evidence. A German bobsledder, Harald Czudaj, called a news conference to announce he'd spied on his teammates for the East German secret police. The athletes from Croatia called a news conference to announce their country existed.

An introspective American cross country skier named Bill Koch thought about dipping the flag during the opening ceremonies to salute the new world. The U.S. Olympic Committee pressured him out of doing it.

Politics were everywhere. French fans cheered for Russians just to spite Americans. A Slovenian slalom skier fell with a medal in sight and sobbed primarily at the disappointment of blowing a medal that would have brought her country great joy.

Mostly, though, there were the Russians. If you had any heart, you felt for them. They had no fans. They had no flag. No national anthem. They had a fake name. Many had trained without proper equipment and, in some cases, not a lot of food. Ugly American entrepreneurs were peddling their old clothes out on the street for hundreds of dollars.

But they did have freedom.

One memory lingers above the rest. After the husband-and-wife team of Marina Klimova and Sergei Ponomarenko won the ice dancing competition, they climbed onto the podium for the medal ceremony. The Olympic flag went up. Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" played.

Throughout the Games, you always wondered if the Russian athletes ached or smiled as they stood at attention before a flag that wasn't theirs. Sergei and Marina leaned over and whispered to each other through the four minutes of music -- a simple act that defined the new freedom of their people.

"What exactly did you say to her?" reporters asked Sergei later.

He smiled. "I said, 'I love Marina.' Three times."

Skating stars at Arena April 11

What: 1992 Tour of World Figure Skating Champions

When: April 11, 8 p.m.

Where: Baltimore Arena

Tickets: $25, $27, $45 and are available at Ticketmaster, the Arena box office or by calling (410) 481-SEAT

Who's scheduled to appear: Midori Ito, Jill Trenary, Kristi Yamaguchi, Todd Eldredge, Christopher Bowman, Paul Wylie, Natalia Mishkutienok and Artur Dmitriev, Elena Bechke and Denis Petrov, Isabelle and Paul Duchesnay and Isabelle Brasseur and Lloyd Eisler

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