Olympics' lack of common sense over ferret games is pet peeve


August 23, 2005|By David Whitley

THE OLYMPIC movement has had its share of weasels over the years. So you'd think it would welcome somebody like Melanee Ellis.

Well, not Ellis, per se. But her pets would seem to be a natural.

"The first question from 99 percent of the people is, `Don't they stink?' " Ellis said.

They can, but no worse than your average Fredonian weightlifter. Ellis owns ferrets, and the Olympics hit a common-sense low last week at the Ferret Agility Trials.

The name may not sound familiar, because it had been called the Ferret Olympics since 1996. Ellis is the Baron Pierre de Coubertin - the father of the modern Olympics - of the ferret games. All was well until the United States Olympic Committee called about her event.

"They said it infringed on their copyright," Ellis said, "and was damaging to the Olympic name."

Damaging the Olympic name? What would it take for tone-deaf Olympic suits to hear the rest of us cracking up? My guess is about $100 million, or whatever the standard fee is for ferrets to become "the official small mammal of the 2008 U.S. Olympic team."

The Olympics live in mortal fear somebody may make a non-copyrighted dime off its name. The USOC is on sound legal ground, but shouldn't it be more concerned about the Chinese than the ferrets? I'm fairly sure scientists aren't in some secret government genetics lab trying to construct the perfect decathlo-ferret. A Russian mobster never bribed a French judge to ensure his sequined ferrets won the pairs figure skating.

You haven't seen a couple of Greek ferrets flee on a motorcycle to avoid giving urine samples. And best of all, NBC never did a 12-minute feature on a spunky ferret gymnast who lost a leg in a kiln explosion.

Not that ferrets have nothing in common with today's high-profile athletes.

"You can litter-train them," Ellis said.

And like some shot-putters, they make nice pets. It's just that ferrets have always had an image problem. They look like a cross between a dachshund and a rat. Hence the classic middle school insult: "Hey, Ferret Face!"

But ferrets are not rodents. And they really don't smell any worse than your average mutt. At least if you get one from a reputable breeder.

"They take out the anal scent glands," Ellis said.

We'll let you make up your own Terrell Owens joke here.

The Ferret Olympics are always held near Eugene, Ore. Ellis would be happy to take the usual bribes to move the games to Paris or London, and taxpayers wouldn't even have to dish out billions for new athletic and drug-testing facilities.

Ferrets only require things like a dryer hose for the Tube Run and dirt for the Flower Pot Dig. There is also a yawning competition, traditionally won by the judge at the ferret synchronized swimming meet.

It all seems harmless enough, but not to the USOC and its zero-tolerance lawyers. If they let the ferrets slide, what might those pushy gerbils demand? Ellis reluctantly changed the name to the Ferret Agility Trials, or FATS. That may partially explain why last week's event drew about 35 athletes, down from 75 the year before.

The ancient Greeks would not be proud of how commerce has hijacked their ideals. At the FATS, only one ferret figured out it was OK to dig out all the dirt from a flower pot.

Spectators, judges, opposing owners, everybody cheered the little fella. It was truly a moment of Olympic brotherhood. And no drug, cheating or bribery scandal ensued.

Come to think of it, maybe Ellis should sue the Olympics for giving ferrets a bad name.

David Whitley is a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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