BLIND FAITH: WHY I LOVE THE OLYMPICS

EN ROUTE TO NAGANO, JAPAN — I wave good-bye to the lucky ones, the ones who get to see the Winter Olympics.

“So long,” I say to my buddy with the big-screen TV, as I board the plane for Japan, “enjoy the event.”

“You, too,” he says, waving.

“Lucky stiff,” I mumble.

I should not feel envy, but I feel envy. I am jealous of their luck. I am jealous of their good fortune. Mostly, I am jealous of their seat.

“Don’t forget to tell me what happens,” I yell to my buddy who owns a sports bar. “I want details.”

“Right, details,” he says. “Hey, bring back some souvenirs.”

“Lucky stiff,” I mumble.

Souvenirs? I can bring back souvenirs. I can bring back the little paperweights with the Nagano snow inside. I can bring back the $200 sweatshirts with the five Olympic rings. I can bring back the teddy bears, the oversized pencils, the Nagano ’98 key chains. I can bring back plenty of things.

I would like to see a few things, too.

“Don’t forget to tape it all,” I yell back at my neighbor with the satellite dish. “Every event, OK?”

“Have a good time at the Olympics,” he says waving.

“Lucky stiff,” I mumble.

It is not that I don’t like the Winter Games. I love the Winter Games. It is not that you can’t have a good time there. You can. You go to faraway towns with faraway snow, and meet people with funny accents who urge you to drink funny drinks while singing funny songs. All that is possible.

But those of us who dutifully attend one Winter Olympics after another — and this is my fifth in a row — know there is what we can do, and what we can see.

And when it comes to the actual competition, we will see less than you.

From the mountains to . . .

Take downhill skiing, for instance, one of the first events of these Nagano Games. While you sit at home, in the comfort of your easy chair, catching every turn and tuck, seeing slow-motion replays, sports writers trudge out to the mountain to witness the event firsthand. Unfortunately, there is no way to witness an entire downhill race unless you ride on the back of the skier, which likely would slow him down.

Instead, sports writers pick a viewing spot on the mountain from which we can see, at best — and I’m being generous here — 1/86th of the race. And with shivering hands, we hold out notepads as skier No. 47 comes whisking along …

…and goes whisking past.

“Gee, he looked pretty good, huh?” one of us will say to the other.

“Yeah, really good. Wonder if he’ll win.”

In a few minutes, another racer comes along. Whoosh! And there he goes.

“Gee, he looked pretty good, too,” one of us will say.

“Yeah. Wonder if he’ll win.”

For all we know, these guys go past us, disappear and hit a tree. For all we know, they come to the bottom of the mountain — which could be a half-mile away — and salsa across the finish line. How would we know? We’re still trying to get the snow off our notepads.

It’s no better in the cross-country ski events. Some of those things are 30 miles long. Just how much of a 30-mile race can you see standing out in the woods?

“Gee, he looks good,” one of us will say, as the Swedish entrant goes gliding past.

“Yeah, he does,” the other will answer.

Then we’ll wait in the woods, watching squirrels, until another guy goes past.

“He looks pretty good, too.”

“Yeah, he does.”

Did I mention bobsled? Did I mention luge? Do the views get any better? No, they do not. Do you know how long a bobsled or luge track is? It’s long. Really long. In person, it’s impossible to stand in one spot and see even three curves out of more than a dozen.

“Wow, look at that guy!” we will say. “He went past really fast!”

“Yeah, and how about that guy? ” we will say, three minutes later, “he was really fast, too!”

After that? You guessed it. We run for a TV to see who won.

From the recliner to . . .

Now, there are a few events for which being there is almost as good as having Jim Nantz and a La-Z-Boy. The hockey is fun. And in person, you can see speedskaters go around and around the track.

As for the sport that drives the ratings of the Winter Olympics — figure skating? Well, you can see that a bit. But the things they say win the competition — the precision of a jump, the smiling, the attitude? I hate to burst your bubble, but TV brings you that. From most seats in the arena, the little girl skating is just a blur of sequins.

“Don’t forget to call me with the winner of the giant slalom,” I yell back to my friend, who owns seven TVs, as the plane door closes behind me. “I’m pulling for Alberto Tomba!”

“Have a nice trip,” he says.

“Lucky stiff,” I mumble.

I will have a nice trip. I will have a good experience. I will find my little spot on the mountain, in the woods or by the luge track. I will watch the Olympians swoosh past, and I will take notes. I will witness history.

And then, when I want to find out who won, I will follow the great journalistic tradition. I will reach into my bag, find the small-screen TV and hope that one of the announcers speaks English.

To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.

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