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Toasting Alaska's Olympians

Posted: Sunday, January 27, 2002

The Great Land can be a not-so-great place to live if one spends too much time lamenting over what this state is not.

Alaska's not a great place to own a low-riding sports car. It's also not the best place to live if one expects all political candidates to hold college degrees. Surprisingly, Alaska's not even the best place to buy gasoline or see Jewel in concert, even though both are from here.

But the reason most of us stay here, or at least stop in for a while, is that we're more focused on what Alaska is great for -- like fresh and unfarmed salmon, Herbie (the Shishmaref Cannonball) Nayokpuk and a general distaste for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

This attitude of focusing on Alaska's strengths also should be carried over into sport.

In most sports, Alaska is hit with the double whammy of climate and low population when it tries to compete with the Lower 48.

Snow covers most areas of the state for five to six months a year, meaning the football, cross country running, soccer and track seasons are shorter than a Living Colour greatest hits album, a Terry Bradshaw appearance on "The Weakest Link" or the Carolina Panthers 2001-02 highlight video.

Disadvantages also extend to sports played indoors, like basketball, volleyball, swimming, hockey and wrestling. Alaska's tiny population guarantees that this state doesn't make a major splash in these sports Outside, with the one exception being Alaska's ever-increasing presence in pro and major college hockey.

I'm not saying I don't like the above sports, or that many Alaskans haven't mined valuable college tuition, life lessons and community bonding from those sports. I'm simply saying Alaska's not a great place to see the best of these sports.

So how does one focus on what Alaska is great for? My suggestion would be to tune in to the Winter Games at Salt Lake City in February.

Ten Alaskans, beating the state's previous high of six, will be competing in the games thanks to the addition of five cross-country skiers last week. The breakdown is those five cross-country skiers, three biathletes, a ski jumper and a snowboarder. One of the Olympians -- biathlete Jay Hakkinen -- even hails from right here on the peninsula.

"It's amazing for Alaska," Olympic cross-country skier Lars Flora of Anchorage told the Anchorage Daily News. "That has to be up there for the most athletes per state. That says a lot about Alaska and its people."

To this, many would say "big deal."

"Of course Alaska's got more Olympians than Liz Taylor does marriage certificates," they would say. "Most of the Lower 48 can't compete in winter sports. They don't have the snow, plus they barely consider skiing a sport.

"Alaskans aren't competing with a lot of people for those Olympic slots."

But Alaska is doing in these winter sports exactly what the Lower 48 does to Alaska in all the other sports -- pressing a climate, population and cultural advantage. Turnabout is fair play, right?

The accomplishments of these 10 Olympians is a wonderful way to celebrate what Alaska is, and, especially as winter rolls on into its fourth month, stop focusing on what Alaska is not.

This column is the opinion of Clarion sports editor Jeff Helminiak. Comments and criticisms can be directed to clarion@alaska.net.



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