His sport is lying down, not his spirit WINTER OLYMPICS

February 09, 1994|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Sun Staff Writer

LILLEHAMMER, Norway -- Duncan Kennedy took a beating for a friend.

In that flash when he turned anger into action, Kennedy said he never once thought of courage or heroism or even staring down racism.

It was this simple: He was not going to let a "bunch of Nazi jerks" attack his U.S. luge teammate, his fellow Olympian, Robert Pipkins.

He wasn't going to be chased out of some bar by 15 skinheads in the tiny resort town of Oberhof, Germany, last October. He wasn't going to let young men dressed in leather and Nazi gear taunt Pipkins, who is black.

So Kennedy absorbed the blows to the head, the kicks to the ribs, the shouts of "Heil Hitler."

And then he fought back the only way he knew how: He went to the police. He fingered the attackers. He got two of them thrown in prison.

He made Germany and the world take notice of one hate crime.

"The fact that someone has to run from another person because of their skin color or religious preference is the most idiotic thing I've heard in my life," he said. "That just gets to start my blood to boil."

Kennedy is at the 1994 Winter Olympics, attempting to become the first American to claim a medal in luge.

He is asked about lying flat on his back and sliding down a mountain of ice, feet first, at 80 mph.

He is asked about being kicked by skinheads.

The questions are jarring. But Kennedy deals with them all quite easily now.

He wants to talk of sports and politics, sliding free and standing up to hate.

"Human rights is an issue that is too hard to ignore," he said. "People just kind of blow it off. But I have to deal with it."

Kennedy, 26, wasn't always so passionate about politics.

For years, he was the talented but sometimes standoffish star of the U.S. luge team. He was "The Natural" on a sled, best in America at 19.

He was tough, too, living with a death sentence as a teen-ager, when doctors spotted what they thought was an inoperable brain tumor. He had double vision and wandered around the streets of his hometown in Lake Placid, N.Y., wearing an eye patch. But it turned out the tumor was a blood clot that eventually dissolved on its own.

He quit the sport for a time. He went snowboarding and surfing. But he returned, wiser and tougher and driven to succeed.

Last year, he was ranked second on the World Cup circuit. This year, he is No. 2 entering the Olympics.

Ask him about luge and winning the Olympics, and all he says is: "I've had a lot of successes. I'm happy with that. There is the elusive Olympic medal. I'm just going to do the best I can. If I get it, that's awesome. If I don't, I'll try again."

But ask Kennedy about skinheads and racism and the attack in Oberhof, and he goes into great detail about the night he stood up for Pipkins.

It was Oct. 29, and the U.S. team was in the tiny town with the famous luge track preparing for the start of the World Cup season. Members of the team went to an Oberhof bar to celebrate the 23rd birthday of a teammate, Chris Thorpe.

By 11 p.m., 15 skinheads had walked into the ground-floor disco.

"You could see their feet before their bodies," Pipkins said. "You could see the combat boots, the blue jeans. And then you saw the T-shirts with the Nazi slogans. One after another they walked in."

Soon, they surrounded Pipkins, making monkey noises and FTC shouting racial epithets.

The Americans stayed. But not for long.

Pipkins was hustled out the back door by two teammates. Kennedy blocked the path of the stairwell, telling the skinheads: "What's your problem? Leave them alone."

The young men then turned on Kennedy, kicking him, finally letting him go. Until he raced outside. And again, Kennedy found himself surrounded, and was kicked repeatedly in the face and chest.

"I wasn't sure I'd get out of there alive," Kennedy said. "My only instinct was to cover my head and face and stay on my feet. Every time I was on the ground, they were kicking me in the head."

Finally, the skinheads released Kennedy, who raced a third of a mile back to the team hotel.

His face was bloody. His nose was broken. His ribs were bruised.

But he was alive.

"Seeing Duncan beaten like that was tough," Pipkins said. "I know he got that beating for no other reason than that he thought about me. He risked his life to save mine."

Four months later, Kennedy still talks vividly of the incident. Surely, it has changed his life, his perspective.

"It's hard to put this out of my mind," he said.

Some good came from the bad. Two of the skinheads were arrested and imprisoned. After nearly 5,000 hate crimes recorded in two years in Germany, nearly all in the country took notice of this one attack on an American athlete.

And the town of Oberhof sought to make amends to Kennedy. When the Americans returned there last month for a World Cup event, the mayor showed up and offered Kennedy flowers. Schoolchildren, who had written him sympathy cards, sang to him.

Kennedy went out and raced hard and fast, finishing second, collecting World Cup points, making his way steadily toward the Olympics.

Now, he yearns to race. Now, he seeks justice for all.

"Right now, nowhere is safe," he said. "The problem we have is worldwide. It's time to find some answers."

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