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

ALBERTVILLE, France — The thing about printing your own money, the bearded man tells me, is finding a place to do it. It’s damn hard. You can’t just build a mint, you know. Even if you do run the country.

He reaches into the pocket of his blue jeans, which he wears with a denim shirt and white socks and bedroom slippers, not a bad outfit for a deputy minister of the government, and he pulls out a few bills, colorful little things with the picture of a mountain. They are signed by the “Secretary of Finance of Slovenia.”

“Tolars,” he calls them.

“Your own money,” I say.

“Yes.” He scoops up the bills and crushes them back into his pocket. “We have it printed in Germany.”

Well. Why not? This is the New World, isn’t it? Old countries falling apart, new countries springing up like daffodils. Slovenia, which used to be a piece of Yugoslavia, now printing its own money in Germany, which used to be in pieces, East and West? These 16th Winter Olympic Games may not have produced the most stirring athletic feats — more people seemed to fall down than win medals — but they certainly get the prize for originality. New flags. New anthems. New abbreviations. You half expected a freckle-faced kid with a sack on his shoulder to be walking through the stands of the opening ceremonies yelling “Scorecards! Can’t tell the world without a scorecard . .

What a time! Such living history! There were two Olympics going on in this French mountain paradise, the ones where the goal was to ski, skate, or slide the fastest, and the ones where the goal was simply to get up and walk. Starting a country isn’t easy, you know. For one thing, you need a leader, and maybe an army, and a constitution would be nice. Not to mention, if you go to an Olympics, a national anthem.

“And passports,” the bearded man, whose name is Matjaz Kek, reminds me.
“We had to have them made. Would you like to see?” He again reaches in his pocket, this time pulling out a simple black document with the word
“Slovenia” etched across the top. Slovenia wasn’t a country before last year. Like Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, it came through the birth canal as communism was collapsing. It took a 10-day war, much blood and tears. But look. They marched. They competed.They have their own passports.

“When we came to France, the border guard said it was the nicest passport he’d seen,” Kek says. He smiled.

Birth of a nation.

Of course, not all the Olympics was in such a sunny mood as Slovenia, whose new government officials — most of them in their 30s — happily hand you business cards with the name of their country in fat blue letters. A business card? For a country? And that’s just the start. Olympic visitors to the “Slovenia Maison” — a rented chalet in the ski town of Meribel — came away with wine and sausage and enough brochures to start a travel agency. Come see Slovenia! Explore Slovenia! Invest in Slovenia! Please! It’s as if George Washington were standing on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, handing out pamphlets, saying “We call it America. It’s a new idea. Check it out . . .”

But down the mountain, near the Olympic hockey arena, things take on a different tone. A man in a parka offers you Russian hats and Russian sweat suits, even authentic Russian army outfits. He has them in a box. The table scraps of communism. The other night, a former Soviet athlete sold the team jacket off his back in exchange for cash and a pair of hockey tickets. Nearly a third of the 263 athletes on the Soviet squad — referred to here as
“Unified Team” — will not be around for tonight’s closing ceremonies. They couldn’t afford to stay. “Problems,” an official said, “with hard currency.”

The Unified Team. Was there ever such a creation in Olympic history? No flag. No anthem. Yet they won more medals than almost everybody. These former Soviets, from biathletes to figure skaters, are like the last survivors of Krypton, super men and women, preparing for their world to crumble. By the next Winter Games, it is unlikely they will be even this unified. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were just the forerunners in the parade out of the old USSR. The sports machines that always characterized Communist bloc nations — with their special sports schools, year-round coaching and rumored dabblings in blood-doping and steroids — are decimated now.

Without rubles, they are rubble.

“Everywhere you turn, swimming pools are shutting down and coaches are having to abandon programs for youngsters who would be our next group of Olympic heroes,” an editor of a Russian sports magazine, Sporting Life, told a journalist last week. Who knows if 20 years from now the Soviets, in any configuration, will still be a threat in international sports?

Good, you say? Well, maybe. But where does that leave the biggest rivalry of the modern Olympics, America vs. Russia, Capitalism vs. Communism? Gone, that’s where. How strange it was to watch the American hockey team get worked into a lather about playing “the Russians,” on Friday afternoon, when the team they actually faced wore uniforms that could be purchased at Foot Locker. This was the Evil Empire? In white jerseys with a yellow and red stripe and no initials?

“They’re still the Russians to us,” U.S. defenseman Greg Brown said before the semifinal showdown. “We don’t care if they’re called CIS.”

“Do you know what CIS stands for?” he was asked.

“Yeah. Uh. Yeah. Wait a second. . . . The Country of Independence States?”

Commonwealth of Independent States.

Good try. Ups and downs for U.S., too

Of course, for some U.S. athletes — who gave us our best medal output since Lake Placid, 1980, and let’s congratulate them right here — pronunciation in these Olympics was less a problem than posture. They kept tripping or slipping or crashing. Every figure skater we put out there — with the exception of Paul Wylie, the men’s silver medalist — had at least one fall, and some had too many to count. Calla Urbanski and Rocky Marval, the charismatic pairs team, spent more time stepping on each other than freshmen at a high school dance. Medal favorite Christopher Bowman, never at a loss for words, took a nasty spill in his opening routine, another in his freestyle program, finished fourth, and later proclaimed, “I came, I saw, they kicked my ass.”

Gold medal: best self-assessment.

Megan Gerety, a women’s downhiller from Alaska, decided to take a practice run down an off-limits part of the mountain and — LOOK OUUUUUT! — crashed into a Norwegian coach. He broke his leg; she missed her event. Kristin Krone, another U.S. downhiller, ended her effort by bouncing off the orange fence near the top of the mountain. Ouch! Duncan Kennedy, our first medal hope in luge, spent too much time scraping off the walls and finished 10th.

Hey. Who made these the banana peel Olympics?

Ah, well. Even in defeat, we created something unique. Take men’s speed skating. Although we failed to capture any medal of any kind in any race — and speed skating has more races than the harness track — we did come up with the most original excuse: bad fish.

“I had some bad fish at the athlete’s village and I was up most of the night throwing up,” Eric Flaim said after finishing 24th in the men’s 1,500 meters. “I had diarrhea and was burping and tasting fish all day long.”

To quote Roseanne Roseannadanna: “Hey, Eric. Ya makin’ me sick.”

Still, the feeling in Flaim’s stomach had to be tame compared to the gut-wrenching inside Dan Jansen, a top flight speed skater who seems destined to be the Olympics’ Gus Grissom, a person to whom things just happen. He became a national tearjerker in 1988, when his sister died of leukemia and he slipped and fell in his race — all in the same day — then slipped and fell in another a few days later. So he comes here, in top condition, ready to avenge the defeats, and instead, he finishes fourth in one race, missing a medal by a whisker, and 26th in another, missing it by the whole beard.

When asked whether he would bother to try for Lillehammer in 1994, Jansen shrugged and said, “I dunno. I might. But it’s kind of far off. And at some point, we want to start a family.”

He looked at his wife, Robin. She smiled. When a reporter then asked Jansen when he planned to start that family, Robin interrupted: “Tonight!”

Gold medal: best direction. U.S. women lead the way

But all right. It was hardly all slipping and sliding for the Red, White and Blue. Some did great, particularly in lesser known sports like freestyle

skiing and short-track speed skating. And our homeboys had their moments — especially when they were homegirls. Nine of the 11 medals the U.S. won were captured by the fairer sex, including all the golds.

Bonnie Blair did what she was supposed to do, taking double gold in the 500- and 1,000-meter speed skating, then personally hugging every one of her friends and family who made the trip, which took her three days.

Figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi set hearts a flutter when she glided and jumped to “The Blue Danube” by Strauss and the Spanish favorite “Malaguena.”
(A Japanese-American, skating in France, to the music of German and Spanish composers. Are these the Olympics, or what?) Kristi — whose favorite phrase seems to be “I was really pleased with the way I skated” — also set the Olympic record for giggles, likes, you knows, kindas, and eyeball rolls. But hey. She’s from Northern California. That’s what she’s supposed to do.

Less relaxed was her rival, tiny Midori Ito, who seemed to carry the weight of the entire Japanese nation on her shoulders. Japan had never earned a medal in figure skating, yet it seemed to desire nothing less than gold from Ito, known as the best jumper in the business. So stressful was the pack of eyes that followed her to practice that Ito began falling on jumps she used to nail with ease. On Wednesday, in her original program, she went down on a triple lutz — which she should be able to do the way you or I go up stairs — and she didn’t smile again until Friday night, when she landed the more difficult triple axel in the freestyle competition and moved up to the silver medal.

“I hope my countrymen will not be too disappointed with this silver,” she said though an interpreter.

If they are, they should be ashamed. Give skating judges a 3.0

Which brings us to skating judges. Once again, these strange creatures in mink coats continue to be the mystery of the Olympics. As near as I can tell, these are the questions a skating judge asks him or herself before posting a critical score: 1) Do I know this skater? 2) Do I like this skater? 3) Does a pearl really go that slowly if you drop it in liquid Prell?

Who are these people? What are they thinking? Aren’t Olympics supposed to be about spontaneity, personal bests, come-out-of-nowhere performances? Fairness? Fair play? Yes? Then why does it seem skating is predetermined?

“When I was competing, my coach and I used to go down the list of judges and say ‘She’s on our side, he’s not, she is, he’s not,’ ” Brian Boitano, the 1988 gold medalist, told me last week. “We knew before I ever went out there how I was gonna get marked. That’s the way figure skating is.”

“Would you want your child to go into it?” he was asked.

“No way,” he said.

And that’s a former champion.

But OK. If we string up the judges and make them listen to ZZ Top music for the next two years — and wouldn’t that be fun? — then we also must take these pictures from the 1992 Olympics and at least find them a nice frame:

Italy’s Alberto Tomba blitzing the giant slalom, then kissing the snow.
(Sure he’s a ham. But it ain’t bragging if you can do it.) The CIS’ ice dancers, Marina Klimova and Sergei Ponomarenko, whose final performance was so sultry, you wanted to smoke a cigarette when it was over. Ray LeBlanc, the 27-year-old American goalie, dropping his stick like a gun in a make-believe holster, proving that a career in the minor leagues doesn’t have to end in obscurity. Ra


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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