It's Not All Downhill

February 23, 1994

They are holding the Winter Olympics in the right place. More fans turned out to watch cross-country skiers and ski jumpers in Norway than go to a Super Bowl. In zero degrees, Norwegians like nothing better than to camp out for a glimpse of cross-country skiers swishing by. These sports aren't exotic, quadrennial novelties for the Norwegians. Speed skater Johann Olav Koss and cross-country skiers Bjorn Daehlie and Vegard Ulvang are household names. Lillehammer is an ideal site for the Winter Olympics.

Inspired by its obligations as host, Norway is second in medals, giving mighty Russia a close run. And Norway is supposed to be a small nation and smaller power. Not in winter sports. Not this year.

Russia is the big story. While the state sports machine is shattered, its remnants do as well as ever. The breakup of the Soviet Union actually let more formerly Soviet athletes compete, as Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan racked up medals. Cash prizes are still given to Russian medal winners, as in the U.S. But it is worth noting that the U.S. has a more supportive sports machine than Russia this year, even if modeled on Russia's former Soviet self, and yet Americans still lag far behind.

Ah, but those Americans. We can be as nationalistic in sport as any small country. Good thing, too. We have new heroes, like Alpine ski medalists Diann Roffe-Steinrotter and Tommy Moe and the irrepressible Picabo Street, the flower child's child. And Kristen Talbot who is a heroine just for competing in the 500-meter speed skating, five weeks after donating bone marrow at Johns Hopkins Hospital to save her brother's life, and four days after her grandfather's death.

And old heroes. Like the senior citizens of speed skating sprints, Dan Jansen at 28 and Bonnie Blair, 29, each in his or her fourth Winter Games. He has dominated his sport as Michael Jordan has his, yet, dogged by tragedy and ill luck, never medaled in Olympics, while she was chasing the record for American medal collection. And they both won gold.

It is all too much. Fortunately, having the Winter Games in 1992 and again in 1994 was an aberration caused by the need to get them on a different cycle from the Summer Games. It will be four years before we have to worry about whether America's perennial kid sister, Bonnie Blair, who will then be 33, can do it one more time.

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