Winter Olympics just feel warmer

Posted: Sunday, February 17, 2002

SALT LAKE CITY -- The towering metal stands at the downhill venue, packed full of flag-waving fans, looked like a United Nations gathering, sans the headphones and translators.

Not that this scene really needed any translation.

The Germans were sitting next to the French, the English next to the Irish, the Swedes next to the Norwegians, the Americans next to everyone.

And everyone was cheering for everyone.

They cheered a little louder for an athlete from their own country, maybe breaking into a chant of "U-S-A, U-S-A" or, in the case of the Germans, a collection of songs from circa 1979. Yet, when their athlete was down the hill and the next one came flying out of the gatehouse, they kept cheering.

"We want to see everyone do well; we just want to see our athletes do a little better," said Lasse Martinsen, a 53-year-old electrical engineer from Norway, adding with a laugh and a wink. "Now if this were a football match, it might be different."

This, I have decided, is what I like about the Winter Olympics.

The Games feel different. And not just because they are different. Or because they're played in different, unusual settings.

They feel different because they feel ... good.

This isn't Florida vs. Florida State. It isn't your average NFL stadium on a Sunday afternoon. There are no beer bottles being tossed. Just cow bells being rung. It is loud and festive. But it's different. It feels good.

OK, maybe it's time for the Skategate disclaimer. Whenever talking about the Winter Games, you have to separate them into two categories, just like NBC does. There is figure skating. And there are those other events.

The other events _ the quirky, seen-once-every-four-year events that inevitably take a back seat in the network bobsled _ are the ones that give these Games their feel-good glow.

These aren't the Summer Games, where it sometimes ends up hard to cheer for even your own athletes. Remember Sydney? The Dream Team whining about officiating after close victories against countries with approximately 17 basketball players? A swimmer spitting in another swimmer's lane? The 4x100 men's relay team preening for the cameras?

It was enough to make you pull for Lithuania.

The Winter Games are different. Unless the hockey team is in Nagano, going Metallica on its rooms, it's very easy to root for our athletes.

Does anyone in America really care about the bobsled? Are you in a luge fantasy league?

No, and that is the beauty of these 17 days. These athletes aren't in it for the fame. And, with the possible exceptions of hockey and figure skating, they're certainly not in it for the money.

Listen to the stories from the U.S. speedskaters. Joey Cheek, the U.S. record holder for the 1,000 meters, spent months sleeping in a sleeping bag on the floor of a friend's one-bedroom apartment while training with the national team. Derek Parra, who jump-started the U.S. medal count here, survived during his early training by working at McDonald's and sneaking hamburgers that sat around too long to sell.

The athletes often have to play fund-raisers, knocking on corporate doors, hoping for some help. And as Mark Pelchat, a 34-year-old speedskater said: "AIDS research, cancer. If it's between me and them, it's a no-brainer."

In the Winter Games, Americans are the underdogs. But to a certain extent, in the Winter Games, every athlete is an underdog. Maybe that's why there is this we-are-the-world like feel.

The athletes spend four years preparing for this, then when it's over, they hug each other. They stop and sign autographs. They blow kisses to the fans. And the fans blow their own version of kisses back.

They clang cow bells and cheer. For everyone.

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