Gold on Ice

February 25, 1992

It was the last hurrah for statist sport. Germany won the most medals at the Winter Olympics, 26, and the most gold, 10. Make no mistake about which Germany that was. The East German sports factory is dismantled and discredited but its athletes won most of those German medals. West Germans basking in the glory, some of them uncomfortable with Eastern compatriots, had better come to terms with that.

The Unified team came in second with 23 medals, 9 of them gold. Oh how the Russians hated the Olympic flag that impersonated their own as they stood on the podium. Some of them don't know what they are going back to, though some hockey players and others may seek careers elsewhere without, in these enlightened days, having to defect. Chaos has canceled the former privileges of subsidized Soviet athletes, some of whom do not know where their next meal is coming from.

Aside from those two ghost teams, the real winners were two little countries always good in Alpine and Nordic endeavor, Austria with 21 medals (6 gold) and Norway with 20 medals (9 gold). Way to go for the latter country of only four million that will host the next Olympic Winter Games in only two years. Norway is not a statist supermachine but the land of honest ski bums.

All the U.S. efforts to match the mechanisms of the former Soviet Union and East Germany came to little on the male side. The mighty American women won nine medals overall and five gold, to which their menfolk added a single silver and single bronze.

So who were the big winners in this winter Olympiad? France, for putting on a good -- and above all, efficient -- show. CBS, for buying the audience it sought with its $243 million gamble for rights. Norway, already ahead of schedule in building the 1994 venue at Lillehammer. Spain, capturing the buildup of enthusiasm for the Summer Games this year at Barcelona (and never mind the net total of one bronze medal). The hockey industry, for proving that millions will stay glued to their sets for international play and might do the same for the National Hockey League.

Who was cheated the most? Figure skating and other champions, who normally get four years of celebrity to capitalize upon until the next crop of Olympic champions crowds them out, but this time get only two years.

Somewhere in all this is the Olympic ideal, the lone athlete competing against the elements, against the world's best and against her or his own limitations. The human race always comes out of these things a little bit better, if only at sliding and jumping and gliding.


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