ALBERTVILLE, France — Leave the kid alone. That’s what we should do. Let Dan Jansen skate around that ice track today, win a medal, and then celebrate by himself, with himself, for himself. He’s earned that privacy. It would be the nicest thing we could give him.
Dan Jansen has done enough interviews for a lifetime, enough for two lifetimes — which, come to think of it, is exactly what this is all about. No one knew who he was before the 1988 Olympics in Calgary, no one outside of a few lonely speed skating experts. But in lieu of expertise, the media will take tragedy. And Jansen was tragedy in a bottle.
His sister was dying of leukemia. He had talked to her the day of his race. Five hours before his start time, she died.
“Should I still try to skate?” Jansen asked his mother, who was back in West Allis, Wis., at her daughter’s side.
She said he should try.
And try was all he could muster. Jansen lasted barely 12 seconds before slipping, sliding and skidding into the safety mats that night in the 500 meters. Several days later, in the 1,000, he fell again. A world champion and medal favorite coming in, his Olympics were over, done, finished.
But his story was bigger than ever.
I remember covering Jansen that night; I remember the pushing and shoving we all did to try to get to someone who could talk about his sadness. I remember writers racing from table to table, trading facts about his family, the length of his sister’s chemotherapy, what he said to her during that final phone conversation.
Had this happened in 1987 or 1989, in March or January — had it even happened two weeks earlier or later — it would have been small type, back page. But because it happened at the Olympics, it was all over America. And so was Jansen’s private sadness.
Time belongs to no man, they say. But it shouldn’t be that fickle. Questions of 1988 won’t go away
When he arrived here last week, four years older and wiser, Jansen attended a press conference in La Lechere. And as soon a reporter said “1988,” Jansen half-smiled, and answered in a calm and polite voice:
“This will be the last thing I’ll say about 1988. I learned a lot from it, mostly that the Olympics are not the most important thing in life.
“For me, this sport is about challenging myself to be the best. That’s all. Every article about me since 1988 has been about my sister and what happened. Every question I’m asked is about my sister and what happened. I’ve answered all of them.
“Now I’m going to try and enjoy these Olympics. That should be a lot different than the last two times. And so from here on in, I really don’t want to answer any more questions about 1988, if that’s OK.”
He stopped. We scribbled. After a few awkward moments, a reporter piped up. “Dan, what is the difference between now and 1988?”
I don’t know how I would react to these games if I were an American athlete. In many ways, the whole thing is a sad joke. Nobody in our country cares about these sports in between torch lightings. We base our knowledge, our adoration, and, in many ways, our money (when it comes to endorsements) strictly on what happens during two weeks under the flame.
How fair is that? Speed skaters, biathletes, ski jumpers and lugers are training and competing for 47 months in between Olympics. They have world championships and World Cups. They have stars. They set records. And nobody in the United States notices. If they succeed under the Olympic rings, they are heroes. If they fail, they are forgotten.
“How often do you have press conferences this big?” someone asked Jansen.
“Once every four years,” he replied. Time just seemed to stand still
On that unforgettable night in 1988, Jansen’s biggest rival was Uwe-Jens Mey of East Germany (who won the gold after Jansen fell). And today, at the speed skating oval, Mey will be his biggest rival again. Little has changed, it would seem — except that Jansen has spent the last four years traveling around Europe, race after race, his clothes in a suitcase, his phone bill astronomical. And now . . .
“People have been telling me, ‘You should have won a gold in Calgary. Don’t worry, you’ll win one here.’ If I don’t, they’ll be disappointed. But I can’t do anything about that.”
If you watch CBS today, you will no doubt see the replays of Calgary, Jansen’s head in his hands, tears welling in his eyes. Sad music will play, and for a moment you will feel like he is the only athlete in these games who ever lost a sister or a brother.
And of course, you’ll be wrong. As most of us are with our whole Olympic perspective.
I’m rooting for Dan Jansen today, because he’s at the top of his sport and has never won an Olympic medal. And whether he wins or loses, I’m going to do him a favor when it’s over.
I’m going to say, “Nice job.”
And I’m going to walk away.