by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

LILLEHAMMER, Norway — The meeting room is small, with an oak table, chairs and thin curtains on the window. The big man enters without fanfare. No staff behind him. No flag. No official uniform. The translator is provided by Norwegians, and once upon a time, that would have been unthinkable.

This is not once upon a time. The man takes no notice of the room, or the translator, or the meager handful of journalists assembled to hear him. He sits down, ready for questions. Green turtleneck, gray sweater, blue ski pants and brown shoes. He is a metaphor for his homeland: one big clash.

“How do you explain,” he is asked, “the success of the Russian team here? After all, the Americans have much more money and facilities. Yet your team has won twice as many medals.”

Balentin Sich, head of the Russian sports delegation, allows the slightest grin on his ruddy face, taking this as a shrewd compliment. His hair is wispy-thin, and what’s left is pushed to a still-wet peak. He surveys the table through his eyeglasses. Mostly Russians. He can tell. The clothes, the scraggly beards, a sweet, pungent smell, body odor and aftershave, the aroma of Eastern Europe.

Sich looks at the lone American reporter, thinks, then answers the question: “Let us say you put an American and a Russian next to each other. The American is dressed very nicely, he is well fed, he has good equipment.

“The Russian is dressed poorly, he is not fed, he has no equipment.

“Now you put $1,000 at the end of 200 meters, and you tell them to run for it.

“Who do you think will win?”

He stops and folds his arms, as if this should explain everything.

Maybe it does. No. 1 in narcissism

America did not win these Olympic Games, we simply out- covered them. While our populace spent the past two weeks breathlessly unfolding chapters in the Nancy-Tonya soap opera, other nations were chasing glory any way they could, using borrowed sleds and taped-up speed suits, saluting flags that are new to the world order. Some dreamed of medals, naturally, but others simply dreamed of freedom, peace, a sponsor. For a few, it was even more basic: two weeks of packing cafeteria food into their bags, taking home whatever they could.

Friday night’s figure skating showdown between Nancy Kerrigan and Oksana Baiul was a contrast both in style and culture. Kerrigan wore a sparkling designer dress — it cost thousands of dollars, which she could take from her new million-dollar deal with Disney. Baiul, meanwhile, wore a feathered outfit that was vaguely suggestive of Phyllis Diller.

And while Kerrigan, still technically an amateur, has been doing TV commercials for some time, Baiul, only two years ago, was searching for scrap money to keep her training going.

In the crowded room where the medalists met the press Friday night, Kerrigan’s agent frowned and said that Kerrigan was robbed of the gold. Certainly, he hoped this would not affect her earnings potential. Meanwhile, Baiul was asked what she wanted now that she’d won.

“A Snickers bar,” she said.

Of course, Baiul has an agent now as well. An American. It is increasingly the way things are going. The Russians, once our Olympic enemies, did far better than the United States in medals. (As of Saturday, they lead the United States, 23-13.) But the crumbling of the Soviet empire and its once- formidable sports machine leaves even their officials wondering how long this can go on. Their athletes are deserting. Their coaches are leaving. Their hockey stars are gulped up by the NHL.

“In America, Nancy Kerrigan will become a millionaire, she will do commercials, sign endorsement contracts and be nationally famous,” someone tells Balentin Sich. “What can your gold medalists expect back in Russia?”

He guffaws. “Well, I don’t think they can expect endorsements. After all, what are they going to endorse? Our country can’t even produce matches anymore!”

He shakes his head. Where the fans were

Such a curious place, the world. On one side, they are chasing crumbs of gossip on two figure skaters. In one part, they are chasing crumbs of bread for the winter. And in Norway, they are jamming the hills for Nordic events. This is where the Olympics were held as far as Norwegians were concerned. The heck with figure skating. Figure skating is for sissies. Tickets were available for the women’s short program as late as a week before the event.

But the 30-kilometer cross-country ski race? Now that was scalpers heaven! Nearly 200,000 fans were on a waiting list for tickets, and that’s after the 100,000 who got in. They rang cowbells and waved flags and urged their skiers on through the frozen woods.

During one race, a Swedish skier broke his pole and sought a replacement from a nearby Norwegian trainer — which is common under the rules. The Norwegian stared at the Swede and kept the poles by his side. The Swede pushed on. Later the trainer claimed he only withheld the pole in case one of his own athletes needed it. But Bjorn Dahlie, the Norwegian ski star, said wryly, “If he had given him that pole, we would have had him for breakfast.”

Isn’t it strange how a sport can be so huge in one country and near meaningless in another? The Norwegians had won 25 medals as of Saturday — an astounding number given their population of four million — and yet, with the exception of maybe one Alpine ski race, you can’t recall them nudging out Americans in anything we cared about, can you? They don’t play hockey well, they don’t figure skate well, they don’t win the downhill.

But they’re going to win the Olympics. Hungry to make a point

Meanwhile, on the other side of winning and losing are teams like Bosnia-Herzegovina, which has deeper concerns. Cheering crowds and glitzy costumes seem surreal when just getting to the Olympics means escaping a war.

The Bosnian bobsledders, example, were without a sled just days before the games. Theirs had burned in a fire in Sarajevo. They were about to drop out.

Fortunately, the Dutch, who did not qualify for the Olympics, offered their sled as a replacement. They sent it by truck. Even so, the Bosnians were close to last in training runs — not because of the sled, but because each of the bobsledders had lost too much weight, an average of 20 pounds over the last two years.

“I hardly tasted meat but twice in that time,” Nizar Zaciragic told a reporter. “Because of the war, we have very bad training, very bad food.”

Zaciragic is a Muslim. His teammates are a Croatian, a Serb and another Muslim. They are not out to win, obviously, but to spread a message. If they can all get along in a 10-foot sled, why must their country burn?

“One of my teammates said he was sad at the opening ceremony,” said Igor Boras, the brakeman. “I told him, ‘You will be sadder at the closing ceremonies.’ “

These are the Olympics. Laughter, tears, front pages

And so is this: Emese Hunyady, an effusive Austrian speedskater who defected from Hungary when she was 18. For two years, she lived without friends or a job, practicing her sport in a strange land. She was 25 before she finally made the games. In Albertville, she won a bronze medal. In Lillehammer, she captured a silver. And then, in the 1,500 meters, she finally got a gold, the first ever for Austria in speedskating. After the medals ceremony, she was asked whether success would bring new sponsors. She laughed.

“My phone number,” she said, “is . . .”

And this: Michael Shmerkin, an ex-Soviet Jew who immigrated to Israel and figured his skating career was over. In Jerusalem, he went to pray at the Western Wall and slid a piece of paper between two stones. Eight wishes. One was to skate in the Olympics. Three years later, there he was, marching in the Opening Ceremonies, Israel’s first Winter Olympian. He wore a yarmulke under his ski cap and carried the flag. He said he cried.

These are the Olympics.

There’s a wonderful spot in the Main Press Center, where newspapers of the world are for sale, one next to the other. In five minutes, you can see what rates the front page in country after country. Interestingly enough, it was rarely Tonya- Nancy. In Italy, it was the Italian skiing gold. In Germany, the medals in ski jumping. Norway draped itself in pictures of speedskater Johann Olav Koss, its triple gold medalist. Different nations, different stories.

And no story was more remarkable than the Russians. Mama USSR is gone

Look at a map, a recent map, and you’ll begin to understand the enormity of what they have done in Lillehammer. Look at Estonia, and Lithuania, and Latvia. Look at Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan and Ukraine. Remember that, just a few years ago, this was all one nation. Same government. Same funding. Same national selection process, local sports schools, regional sports schools, elite sports schools. They were like this monstrous archer, pulling children from the quiver and firing them at Olympic bulls-eyes.

And now? Now the main speedskating training site is in one country, Kazahkstan, and a main ski training site is in another country, Armenia, and, if you can get past the bickering among all these new nations, the air fare is so expensive, it’s cheaper to go to the West. Coaches get paid next to nothing. They can make far more teaching foreign athletes. The chains are off. Mama USSR is gone.

Imagine if America were split into half a dozen nations, during a massive depression, where jobs were scarce and starvation not uncommon. How important would sports be?

“My salary for this job,” said Sich, the head of the delegation, “is 16,000 rubles a month. This is $10. I can buy a half a kilo of sausage.”

And yet, he is here. And the athletes are here. Fueled by their desire, helped by local businessmen, sponsored by Western companies, such as Reebok and Philco — whatever, however, they came, 120 Russians, 37 Ukrainians, 33 from Belarus, 29 from Latvia. The stories vary, but most sound like this:

He skates, but the federation can pay him only $30 a month. His mother lost her job at a factory and now works as a cook. His coach chipped in his own money to send him here.

Alexei Urbanov, gold medalist, men’s figure skating.

She was using blades that were 4 years old. She had no fabric to make a costume. Her father had disappeared. Her mother and grandmother were dead. An older skater helped her with money, bought her clothes, got her new skates, helped her get here.

Oksana Baiul, gold medalist, figure skating.

How do they do it? Is it what Sich was talking about, who needs the money more at the the finish line? Is it hunger? Desperation?

Or is it simply hard work? Long ride to compete

Most likely, some of each. But together, all these victories from the hungry and less populated pockets of the world taught us a lesson at the XVII

Winter Games: What concerns America is not always what concerns the rest of the world — even if Connie Chung, USA Today, and “Current Affair” can’t stop talking about it. The planet rotates, a day at a time, and while some folks worry about who’ll play who in the Nancy Kerrigan movie, others, like Mongolian speedskater Bat- Orgil Batchuluun, worry about . . . train fare.

Batchuluun was his country’s only athlete in the Winter Games. Three weeks ago, he was training in Germany when he was told his times were not good enough to make the Olympics. He missed the cut. Dejected, he took the train home to Mongolia, an eight-day trip.

And when he got there, he was notified that the North Korean team had dropped out, and there was a spot for him after all.

And back he came. All that way. He wore a racing suit that was donated by a manufacturer, and he lasted just one heat, 43 seconds, before elimination. But he waved to the crowd, and it roared its approval.

Such a curious place, the world. Friday night, just moments after Kerrigan finished skating on CBS, an obviously pre-planned commercial appeared with her, wearing the same dress, now skating


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