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SALT LAKE 2000: Birth of an Olympic event

Posted: Friday, January 25, 2002

On a summer day in 1995, Stew Flaherty was working out at his gym in Westerville, Ohio, when something unusual happened. Two women struck up a conversation about bobsledding.

They'd heard that Flaherty, a financial consultant, had a knack for fund raising, and they needed funds. They quickly got to the point: Could he help develop a U.S. women's bobsled team?

The Olympics weren't even a consideration. They just wanted to compete in some international races. They had no money. No sleds. No support from the federation running the sport and, really, no team.

For some reason, Flaherty said yes.

Next month, he'll be track-side as women's bobsled makes its Olympic debut. The 1,500-meter freestyle race in cross-country skiing is another new contest at the Salt Lake City Games, and skeleton -- a headfirst, seemingly suicidal version of luge -- returns for the first time since the 1948 Olympics. Men and women will compete in both those events.

The journey to becoming an Olympic sport is hardly an easy one. It is a complicated and sometimes combative process that involves everything from gender equity and medal possibilities to worldwide popularity, the quality of competition and the costs of staging an event.

The International Olympic Committee wants something that is exciting and keeps pace with the times -- snowboarding, for example, which debuted at the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano. The host committee wants something that brings more medals to the home country and doesn't cost a lot to add.

The athletes want the recognition and financial support that come with competing in the games.

There's a slew of sports -- and some events that aren't really sports -- vying for a spot at the Summer or Winter Games, everything from bridge and ballroom dancing to water skiing and sumo wrestling.

Yet success might simply come down to old-fashioned lobbying, good timing and even better luck.

Here's how one group did it, defying the odds to reach the pinnacle of amateur sports.

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When Flaherty entered the picture, women's bobsled was barely a glint in the eye of the world's bobsled federations. The U.S. team consisted of about eight women who knew little about the sport. Outside the United States, only Canada, Britain, Germany and Switzerland fielded women's teams in international races, where no more than eight sleds competed on any given day.

To be an Olympic event, a sport must be contested in more than two dozen countries and on several different continents and it must have a competitive world championship.

Women's bobsled fell far short of the requirements.

But no one, particularly not Flaherty, was thinking about the Olympics back then. He just wanted to help the women build a team. He went to the United States Bobsled and Skeleton Federation in search of money and equipment, and ran into the first of many roadblocks.

''It's like asking a starving man to share his food with you,'' Flaherty said. ''The men were very afraid that we were going to take away what little they had.''

So Flaherty found an independent sponsor, and began pouring his own money into the program.

They cut costs, renting sleds until they bought their first one from a museum for a mere $5,000 -- $30,000 below the going rate for a new one. At their debut competition in Calgary, the women paid $24 a night to stay in an Olympic training center instead of a hotel.

Despite the obstacles, Flaherty began wondering: Why wasn't this an Olympic sport?

''I decided this is ridiculous,'' he said. ''The women can slide as competitively as the men,'' he said. ''With proper training and proper equipment, there's no reason they shouldn't be Olympic.''

He joined forces with Joseph Kilburn, the women's bobsled coordinator for the International Bobsled and Skeleton Federation, or the FIBT. During the 1996-97 season, they began researching the requirements. They set their sights on the 2002 Games.

The main hurdle was they needed more countries to field teams and additional worldwide competitions to increase exposure. Those nations already competing started an adopt-a-country program and began lobbying their sister federations around the world.

Yet few federations wanted to take money from their men's programs to support women's bobsled.

Chauvinism also was a problem. At one race in Germany, the women were forced to use a different starting point than the men, resulting in several spills. Some sledders almost quit.

Even the FIBT, whose support was crucial for the IOC to consider women's bobsled, was lukewarm at first -- pushing for skeleton instead because it had more international support, Flaherty said.

Flaherty and the U.S. team, along with sledders from around the world, began a letter-writing campaign to the FIBT, the Salt Lake Organizing Committee and the International Olympic Committee.

The following year, in 1997, the FIBT began the first official women's World Cup competition.

In 1998, former Olympic luger Bonny Warner got wind of the effort and quickly joined. Her approach: If the IOC was as committed to gender equity as it claimed, women's bobsled should be in the Olympics.

Using her connections within the U.S. Olympic Committee and the Salt Lake Organizing Committee, Warner started lobbying.

''Salt Lake didn't want to do it unless the IOC wanted to do it, and the IOC didn't want to do it unless the international federation wanted to do it, and the international federation didn't want to do it,'' she said. ''Nobody said no, but everybody said well maybe by 2010, maybe by 2006.''

Then fate intervened. In December 1998, at a World Cup race at the Olympic sledding venue in Park City, Utah, Americans Jean Racine and Jennifer Davidson took gold and teammates Jill Bakken and Meg Henderson finished with the silver.

Suddenly, the SLOC saw victories in a sport the U.S. men hadn't medaled in since 1956.

In June 1999, the SLOC approved the addition of women's bobsled to the 2002 program, along with skeleton. Four months later, the IOC concurred.

During the first official World Cup season, there were 14 women's teams representing seven nations, Kilburn said. Today, there are 37 teams from 24 nations. Seventeen teams will be at the Olympics, with the top 15 competing.

There's no guarantee of success, Kilburn admitted, adding that the FIBT has made it clear: ''If we appear to be weak or it's not a successful event, we will be pulled subsequent to the games.''

''We know that we're sort of under a microscope, but I think we're going to come out well,'' he said. ''The sport has a very good future.''

Many of the original U.S. sledders, including the two who first approached Flaherty -- sisters Alexandra Powe-Allred and Michelle Powe -- have long left the sport. Even Warner, who vied for a spot on the Olympic team, didn't make the cut.

Yet through the efforts of people like her and Flaherty, other women now have a chance at the Olympics.

''The fact we're in is a miracle,'' Flaherty said. ''We defied the odds. We were at the right place at the right time, and we had the right combination of people.

''Yes, we're in. We're in, and we're going to deliver a quality product.''

End Adv for Jan. 26-27



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