With only 2-year interval, Olympics a familiar affair

February 12, 1994|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Sun Staff Writer

LILLEHAMMER, Norway -- The images rise from the mist of a Nordic morning:

Italian ski racer Alberto Tomba charging down a mountain like a rampaging bull on snow.

American speed skater Bonnie Blair, caught in a crouch, skating against herself and history.

And British skaters Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean, elegance on ice, tap dancing toward gold.

These are the deja vu Winter Olympics.

There is a sense that the world has seen all this before, even as nearly 2,000 athletes from 69 nations assemble for today's opening ceremonies of the 17th Winter Games.

The Olympics are as much a show of big business and commerce as athletic strength. Here, Kodak, IBM and Coca-Cola battle as fiercely as Russian hockey players, Latvian lugers and Bosnian bobsledders.

And the playing fields of ice and snow have been leveled. Amateurism is gone. The professionals have taken over. And a calendar change to alternate the Winter and Summer Games has provided the best cold-weather athletes a bonus Olympics.

Two years after the 1992 Winter Games of Albertville, France, many of the same stars that captivated a country -- and a world of spectators -- are back.

So there is Mr. Tomba, skiing for an unprecedented fourth gold medal, Ms. Blair bidding to become the greatest female American Olympian of them all, and Ms. Torvill and Mr. Dean staging a comeback a decade after they sealed a gold with a kiss.

It is all familiar. And all intriguing.

The Nancy Kerrigan-Tonya Harding skating saga may be played out in the American courts and the tabloids, but here, the talk is of competition and of patriotism.

"When you're at the Olympics over the years, things change," said Brian Boitano, the 1988 gold medalist in men's skating who's back for another test.

"You're younger, you have blinders on," he said. "Now, I'm keeping my eyes wide open. I'm enjoying every moment. I'm getting into the patriotic thing."

Skating was among the last of the Olympic sports to break the barriers between amateurs and professionals. But when the curtain opened and the ice show stars slipped through, what a glorious sight it was.

This year, Mr. Boitano and Katarina Witt join kids such as Scott Davis and Oksana Baiul.

Pairs skater Ekaterina Gordeeva, a child when last we saw her, is now a mother, and her husband Sergei Grinkov is prepared to lift them all to another gold.

"If all the best athletes aren't here, it's not competition," Mr. Boitano said.

Bringing together the best athletes for 16 days is what this is about. That is what Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the International Olympic Committee, envisioned when he began chopping away at the amateur code at the dawn of the 1980s.

"Athletes are able to manage their lifestyles in ways that were not possible before," said Anita DeFrantz, an IOC member from the United States. "Look, years ago, you had to go out and get a job. Now, you can compete. And you grow stronger when you are in your 30s and 40s."

Money may have changed the Olympics, bringing millionaire skiers in contact with struggling lugers. But the competition is better. The show is richer.

"No one checks bank accounts at the starting line," Ms. DeFrantz said.

The athletes now grow before our eyes.

Dan Jansen began his Olympic speed skating career in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, in 1984 and will end it here in Norway, trying one last time to win his first medal.

"It's not a piece that I have to have to go on with my life," he said.

An itinerant minor-league hockey player named Peter Laviolette bled for America on the ice in Calgary, Alberta, in 1988, and then spent the best years of his life struggling for stardom in Flint, Mich., and Binghamton, N.Y. Now, he is back, trying to close a circle, trying to win the medal that eluded him six years ago.

"I'd take a gold-medal game over a Stanley Cup final any time," he said.

And speed skater Kristen Talbot is at her third Olympics. She was unknown in Calgary, overlooked in Albertville. But here, she is a star.

She cannot win her race, the 500 meters. She may not even finish in the top 15. But there are things more important than competition, things such as family and love.

Last month, she donated her bone marrow to her brother Jason, a Johns Hopkins Hospital outpatient who has aplastic anemia.

"I'm no hero," Ms. Talbot says.

E9 She prefers to be called something else: an Olympian.

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