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Clarion Calls

Posted: Thursday, January 07, 2010

Jeff's call: Olympics has forgotten its roots

There were two times I was transported back 25 years recently.

The first was driving past the Orca Theatre in Soldotna, which is showing "Sherlock Holmes" and "Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel."

The second was talking to 2002 Soldotna High School graduate Brent Knight about his cross-country skiing career.

Knight, a 25-year-old living in Anchorage, has the goal of skiing in the Winter Olympics in February in Vancouver.

When talking about his skiing career, though, he sounded like an athlete from a vanished era.

"I don't actively look for big sponsors, and I take pride in knowing I've gotten this far on my own buck," he said.

Knight acknowledged that at some point he would probably have to look for a sponsor. That way he could spend a few more hours training and a few hours less at his current full-time job at Skinny Raven Sports in Anchorage.

There's one problem, though. Knight actually enjoys full-time employment. He said he likes helping customers reach their goals, whether the goal is losing a few pounds or becoming an elite athlete.

That brings to mind a quote from Al Oerter, an Olympic gold medalist in the discus in 1956, 1960, 1964 and 1968.

Oerter, who died in 2007, was visiting an Olympic training facility in the 1990s when he bemoaned the loss of Olympic amateurism to the New York Times.

"I saw these athletes in their 30s training full time. ... That's their life," he said. "What happened to the rest of it? I'm happy I had a normal life, with a career and family. That makes a person whole."

Amateurism is almost totally gone from the Olympics and it's not coming back. Just like Hollywood has a sure moneymaker in familiar names like Sherlock Holmes and Alvin the Chipmunk, the International Olympic Committee can make far more money off professionals than amateurs.

That's not an all-bad thing. Professionals have created many great Olympic memories and achievements.

But there is something that has been lost in the Olympic movement. A desire to compete on one's own buck. A realization that athletic achievement and a full-time job do not have to be mutually exclusive. Elements of a normal life that make a person whole.

Despite being a corporate moneymaking machine, the sport of golf takes time to recognize amateurs at the Masters, U.S. Open and British Open. In fact, the Masters is a tribute to one of the best amateur athletes ever -- Bobby Jones.

The Olympics should take similar steps to recognize its amateur roots. It take more than a ton of money to make the Olympic movement whole.

Mike's call: Biathlon perfect Alaskan sport

Skiing and gun rights.

Anyone who's lived in the Last Frontier knows the passion Alaskans have for each. So it should be so surprise that our state is on the verge of sending three biathletes to the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.

With Kasilof's Jay Hakkinen and Anchorage's Jeremy Teela already earning spots on the U.S. Olympic Biathlon team, Nikiski High School graduate Zach Hall has a shot at joining them.

The 25-year-old will compete against six other Americans in three races at the International Biathlon Cup in Altenberg, Germany, today, Saturday and Sunday for a chance to earn one of two remaining spots.

The sport, which combines cross-country skiing with precision target shooting, is as Alaskan as a flannel-shirted, thick-whiskered man splitting wood.

Hall, like many youths, was handed his first BB gun at an early age. He honed his target shooting by plinking cans. A few years later, armed with an old pair of skis, he explored Nikiski's wilderness around his house.

"When I got into the school program at Nikiski and got to race for the first time, I realized I had found something great," Hall said via e-mail last week. "Shooting was a great challenge and something that I enjoyed while I was growing up. Looking back now, it seems only natural that the two pursuits would one day meld."

Though it's natural to assume Alaska would produce top-notch biathletes, it's amazing that a state of fewer than 700,000 people could send three biathletes to Canada, accounting for half of the men's U.S. Olympic team. Should Hall earn a spot, one-third of the team would come from the Kenai Peninsula.

I wish Hall all the best in Germany, not only for his career, but also to witness the incredible sight of two Olympians, hailing from such a tiny community, competing on the world's largest sports stage.

Jeff Helminiak and Mike Nesper work in the sports department at the Peninsula Clarion. They can be reached at sports@peninsulaclarion.com.



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