Sliding competitors see a global warming trend

Winter sports: Training in bobsled, luge and skeleton has become a hot idea with athletes who might normally see ice only in a glass.


February 26, 2005|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

LAKE PLACID, N.Y. - On one of the coldest days of winter, things definitely are uncool for the Jamaican bobsled team.

With little time left before competition, team driver Winston Watts dashes from the Olympic Training Center to Zig Zags, a Main Street bar, hoping to find a little something to give him an edge.

Like, say, a bobsled.

Zig Zags keeps a battered, old sled on the sidewalk as a landmark, which puts the saloon one up on the Jamaicans, who showed up for the America's Cup race without their mode of transportation.

It was lost. Or forgotten. Or something. Watts' tale of woe, told in a lilting accent that warms the subzero day, has as many twists and turns as the bobsled track he can only stare up at. The bar, alas, won't lend him its sled, which lacks steering and brakes.

"No worries. Things will be better, mon," Watts concludes at the end of each telling.

"It's like a marathoner showing up without sneakers," said one Canadian athlete, laughing and shaking his head.

While Watts' story is unusual, the sight of athletes from warm-weather nations throwing themselves down an icy track no longer is.

Since the 1988 Calgary Games, when the Cool Runnings Jamaicans made a statement, albeit upside down, more and more icy-hot athletes have set their sights on the Winter Olympics. This year, bobsledders and skeleton and luge racers hail from Brazil, Mexico, the Virgin Islands, Iraq, Israel and Greece.

"I call it the Star Trek syndrome," said U.S. skeleton coach Steve Peters, who often acts as their unofficial mentor. "They want to go where no one from their country has gone before. It's not about the medals."

With the sliding sports in the final days of their seasons, the icy-hots are already hat-in-hand to pay for next winter's competition, the one that leads up to the Olympics. They will sell hats and T-shirts, sign posters and photos, give sidewalk rides on sleds with wheels. The Greek team even puts small photos of contributors on the side of its sleds.

"Leave no stone unturned," said John-Andrew Kambanis, a two-time Olympian who is a Chicago financial planner when he isn't piloting Greece's bobsled.

"We're always short of money," said Mexican bobsled driver Roberto Tames, 40, a three-time Olympian. "We know we're not like the Germans or the Swiss teams. There's always people with more money and better looks, but we have heart, and that counts, too."

Athletes know they sometimes are the punch line to jokes, but they bristle at any suggestion that they're playing it for laughs.

"It's no gimmick," said Ricky McIntosh, a member of the early Jamaican bobsled teams who now competes in skeleton. "You slide down the mountain in the cold - bang, bang, banging off the ice. And you get up and do it again. There are easier ways to get publicity."

The weeding-out process has already spit out two pretenders from other sports who arrived with great fanfare. Surfer Laird Hamilton and NHL All-Star Chris Chelios both expressed interest in joining the Greek bobsledders, but several runs here and in Calgary persuaded them to seek thrills another way.

Yet, there are those who believe the icy-hots don't deserve to be sliding where world-class athletes perform.

Earlier this month, the International Luge Federation canceled the World Cup finale in Turin, Italy, after several athletes were injured in crashes on what will be the Olympic venue next February. Brazil's Renato Mizoguchi suffered a severe head injury and was in an induced coma as doctors worked to repair the damage.

Luge's ruling body said the nearly mile-long track, with 19 curves, would have to be simplified before the Winter Games, an announcement derided by the head of the Italian winter sports federation.

"It's not the track which must be modified ... but the criteria of the [federation] about the technical level of athletes allowed to compete," said Gaetano Coppi.

The icy-hot countries are part of the reason the Winter Games have grown so much in the past two decades. In 1924, the inaugural year, 16 nations participated. By 1980, the number had grown to 37. The 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics attracted 77 nations.

But that growth is likely to slow somewhat. The international bobsled federation has toughened qualifying standards, which will reduce the number of entries in Turin from 38 to 28.

Mexico, which fielded teams in 1988, 1992 and 2002, hopes to make the cut. For the America's Cup finale here, the team brings four-man and two-man sleds and skeleton racers.

"Mexico is here to stay. We don't ask for respect. We've worked hard and sacrificed. We've earned it," said Tames, an anti-drug counselor in Guadalajara.

For Tames, sacrifice means saving up vacation time to train and compete. It's scraping together money to buy a secondhand sled from the Russian team. It's pulling that 600-pound sled in a 1978 El Camino from Guadalajara to Calgary, stopping only for bathroom breaks and fuel.

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