Winter Madness

February 23, 1994|By DERRICK Z. JACKSON

Boston. -- It has dawned on me why I like the Winter Olympics. I like being part a diverse society that embraces the lunatic fringe.

Let's start with the Summer Games. Most of those events are primitively to the point. You run or swim faster, jump higher, throw longer, cycle or row harder. Maybe you can blow out a knee going for the gold in badminton or table tennis, but tearing a ligament chasing Fido seems more likely.

The only sport that seems fraught with spine-tingling danger is ,, high diving. The idea of my cranium clearing a concrete platform with an arching, twisting back-flip makes the rest of the summer offerings a piece of cake. Gymnastics is a close second, since few of us entertain jumping up, flipping in midair and landing on a balance beam. I could barely do a forward roll in elementary tumbling class.

Fencers wear pads to keep from impaling each other. Pole vaulters know there are padded landings waiting for them on earth. Boxers wear padded headgear to guard against permanently leaving earth.

Compared to this, the Winter Games are a perfect 10 on the nutso scale. When you watch lugers hit the side of the luge and then skid down the chute at 70 miles per hour, desperately holding onto their sleds, that is wild enough. Then I hear little things that are normal about the luge, such as the burns athletes receive from instant meltdowns of their bodysuits when they accidentally scrape the ice walls.

There is no event in the Summer Games where the object is to travel from Point A to Point B without ever once seeing where you are going. This is what you do in the luge. You lie flat on your back, looking up in a direction you hope your God does not bring you, as least for the next minute and a half.

During these Winter Games in Lillehammer I have subjected myself to an article on a luger in the newspaper. In a pre-Olympic incident, the luger remembered feeling a thud during her run. Unknown to her, her sled had severed the leg of a coach who was working on the track during a timeout but did not hear the all-clear warning.

The coach now has a prosthesis. The coach and the athlete have seen each other at the Olympic Village in Lillehammer. The coach has reassured the athlete that the incident was all his fault and joked with the athlete about going out to dance. This is a bonanza for a journalist hunting for a human interest story. But I cannot tell you I am wildly enthusiastic about directing my sons to a sport where the coaches lose limbs.

Then you have downhill skiing. It makes for intense photography, withthose low-to-the-ground, wide-angle shots that make skiers seem they are going at the speed of light instead of the already out-of-your-mind 75 miles per hour. But the only thing that would get me going 75 down 2 miles of sleet is if you put a really bad thing next to my head.

And whatever that bad thing next to my head is, you might as well go ahead and use it, because the moguls are out of the question. You mean, downhill skiing over corrugated snow and then jumping up in the air like Mary Lou Retton? I'm a guy who turns cobalt blue from frostbite, indigo blue from falling all over myself on Easiest Trails in cross-country skiing and would rather go permanently blue quickly than waste away in a hospital like a ruined McPherson strut.

I must confess, however, that the most psychotic individual event in all of medal sports, the ski jump, has bizarre appeal. Common sense tells me that if I had a choice, again with a bad thing next to my head, ski jumping is the one sport that would make me kick and scream instead for a parachute jump, a hang glide or a rock climb. None of those pursuits, you may have noticed, are in the Summer Olympics. I would rather take a punch in Olympic headgear from Evander Holyfield than zoom )) down that ramp toward the valley of the shadow of a death so certain I am not quite sure my God would forgive me for that.

But the sport is so alien to my concept of common sense. I would love to experience the thrill of a ski jump if I knew I was going to make it. Alas, ski jumping is Alpine bungee jumping gone berserk. At least in real bungee jumping, a novice usually bounces back up on a tether. A ski jumper has only one way to go, one set of landing gear and no chance to call the traffic control tower to check in for wind shear. The only people who can do this sport are those who do not fear death. And in my view, those who do not fear death are either political martyrs or have no mind worth exploring.

All of this makes ice hockey, normally a goon professional sport in the U.S., seem like yoga at Lillehammer. Even figure skating is way beyond my idea of safe sport. This has nothing to do with Nancy's knee. This is about landing on one ankle after triple spins. This is about landing on one ankle after being thrown in midair by partners. This is about spinning round and round until what went down my esophagus would surely come up. This is about spinning in wonderment at these arctic athletes until you could convince me that curling must be a contact sport.

Derrick Z. Jackson is a columnist for the Boston Globe.

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