Demons of self-doubt again playing Games with Jansen LILLEHAMMER '94

February 15, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

HAMAR, Norway -- Dan Jansen's latest Olympic catastrophe was useful in one sense. It enabled us to finally and conclusively identify his problem.

Whoops, there it is.

Jansen is a speed skating champion with a gremlin lurking somewhere inside him. A nasty little sucker.

It lays low when Jansen is skating anywhere other than in the Olympics, which, of course, is just about all of the time. But when it is time for Jansen to skate for a gold medal, it starts stomping and hollering and shouting whatever it is that gremlins shout when they want to get their point across.

In any case, it makes sure that Jansen is freshly aware of his tortured Olympic history when he toes the starting line, thus poisoning his head with the mortal enemy of athletes everywhere: self-doubt.

Jansen is a powerful 28-year-old, the world's best sprinter by any reckoning, whose unmatched record of success stands as evidence that he never doubts himself -- except in the Olympics. As an Olympian, he is hopelessly flawed.

This is a story about human frailty.

It starts, yes, with Jansen falling in two events six years ago in Calgary, the first time within hours of learning that his sister had -- died. Something in the experience, maybe the unrelenting focus on his failure, scarred him permanently.

That seemed pretty clear two years ago in Albertville when Jansen finished fourth as the co-favorite in his best event, the 500 meters, after inexplicably hesitating on the second turn, the site of one of his Calgary falls.

Yet, as evident as his self-doubt was that day, its presence was understandable, excusable. Jansen's buildup to Albertville included countless reviewings of the sad events of Calgary. His mother watched without disappointment that day in Albertville, sighing as he came in fourth. "I'm just glad it's over," she said.

This time was different. This time he was a big favorite in the 500 thanks to a spectacular year in which he broke skating's version of the four-minute mile, covering 500 meters in under 36 seconds, and lowered his own world record several times.

"I'm the best," he said before the Games, and it wasn't bragging, just fact.

A gold-medal day was setting up perfectly. He owned the track record at the Viking ship venue. He was skating as well as he ever had. The knowledgeable Norwegian fans came ready to cheer him as they would their own.

He broke smartly, covering the first 100 meters in a world-record pace. The crowd roared at the posting of the split time. Jansen powered through the first turn and up the straightaway, and leaned into the second turn. Way ahead. Just too good.

L "I would have won by a lot," he said, "if I hadn't slipped."

Slipped.

On the second turn.

Again.

And suddenly the whole business was as clear as the blue winter sky outside.

If he couldn't stay up now, when he hadn't fallen in forever; if he couldn't do any better than eighth place now, when he was so clearly the best, well, wasn't the lesson clear?

His Olympic gremlin. Yes, it existed. Yes, it had him. Try as he might -- and he had spent two years polishing his positive thinking -- when it really mattered he just couldn't associate the Games with anything other than failure. And as he said himself last week discussing another skater, "If you don't think you're going to win, you won't."

He didn't yesterday. There was a shard of self-doubt in there somewhere, and it was enough to sink him.

No one wanted to believe it. His coaches, parents, friends, teammates, wife, family -- they wanted to believe that it was just bad luck, circumstances, whatever. None wanted to believe that Dan, so strong and successful, has a tragic Olympic flaw.

But he does.

You can't see it. You can't quantify it. As Steve Martin used to joke, it doesn't make him a bad person. He's a gentleman, a wonderful athlete. But yes, he's got a howling gremlin in there somewhere.

Think about it: One of the best American speed skaters ever has skated in seven Olympic races without winning a single medal. He doesn't just disappoint, he crashes.

In the face of such evidence, too conclusive now to ignore, Jansen's father stood in the stands yesterday and pointed to the problem. Admitted it, finally, sadly.

"Possibly the tragedy of '88 . . . it's a possibility," he said.

There's no denying it: Jansen had a fight on his hands yesterday when he toed the starting line -- a fight against self-doubt -- and he'll have the same fight on his hands Friday when he skates in the 1,000 meters, his last chance to win an Olympic medal.

If he wins, or even just medals, you'll know that he finally won the fight, that he managed to muzzle that self-doubt long enough to avoid another catastrophe.

But just as it would be the first time, it also would be the last.

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