RUSSIANS COMPLAIN LIKE BAD OLD DAYS

SALT LAKE CITY — The pebble has become an avalanche.

Now the Russians want to go home. They’re threatening to scoop their Olympic marbles and hop an Aeroflot, maybe even today, maybe not come to the Games in 2004 in Athens.

The Lithuanians are protesting figure skating. The Koreans are protesting and demanding — guess what? — their gold medal back in short-track speedskating.

And guess whose fault it will all end up being?

Dosvedanya, Happy Games. You didn’t really think it would end with those Canadian kewpie dolls on the cover of Time magazine, did you? Everybody all smoochie for the cameras?

Nuh-uh. The Olympics have always been the best-disguised political war, and the rules in the field are an eye for an eye. This whole thing started with that kooky French judge.

And I promise you it is at least partly behind the shocking threat made Thursday night by Leonid Tyagachev, president of the Russian Olympic Committee:

“If Russia is not needed in Olympic sport, we are ready to leave the Olympic Village. And perhaps we would then unite the higher achievement of sport within the circle of those people who are interested in clean competition.”

Whoa.

Translation: You cheated, we’re outta here.

Make no mistake. This is stunning. Sure, some smaller nations have left Olympics in protest, more often in shame over a doping discovery.

But Russia? Not just pulling out of a race — as it did earlier Thursday in a controversial cross-country event — but threatening to bow out of the U.S.-Russia hockey showdown? Threatening to go home? Threatening to skip Athens four years from now?

Over what? The last time Russia skipped a Games was 1984, in the final days of the Cold War.

It wasn’t over judging, I can tell you that.

“We have 24 hours,” Tyagachecv said.

Geez. Is it sports, or the Missiles of February?

It’s the world’s Games

Now, I know there are some people out there whose knee-jerk reaction is: “They want to go? Let ’em go.”

That’s fine if you’re having a beer blast in your basement. Or if you’re Pat Robertson.

But the Olympics do not belong to the country hosting them — contrary to NBC’s attitude — and if we learned anything from the terrible events of Sept. 11, it is should be this:

Just because people aren’t speaking your language doesn’t mean they aren’t talking about you.

So what do you think they’re saying in Moscow this morning? You think they’re talking about Bode Miller? You think they’re showing Al Roker at the luge track?

What do you think Korean television and newspapers are saying? That Apolo Anton Ohno is cool?

What we think is not what the whole world thinks, and if you’re going to host an Olympics, like it or not, what the world thinks matters. Ask Ohno, the guy who won the gold that South Korea wants back. He reportedly received more than 16,000 e-mails Thursday, some so threatening they were forwarded to the FBI.

I don’t think he’s laughing.

A pound of flesh

“Our position is this,” said Francois Carrard, the director general of the International Olympic Committee, in the latest in a slew of news conferences.
“We feel these are great Games. The stakes are high. The emotions are high. Tension is high.”

As to the Russian threat? “I have to insist this was emotion, too.”

Just the same, the IOC, he admitted, whipped off an explanatory letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Putin, huh?

Not political.

So, let’s get to the big question. If these nations, a sore South Korea, a sore Lithuania, and triply sore Russia (it complained about hockey, cross-country skiing and figure skating) are so upset, is there anything America or the Salt Lake Games could have done about it?

That’s the hornet’s nest. Probably not. There is a certain amount of envy already at the U.S. medal success, and an international aggravation at our fascination with ourselves.

But the pebble here was not American but Canadian. This all stems from that pairs skating controversy. Nations like Russia are not accustomed to giving things back at an Olympic Games. The moment that second medal was awarded to David Pelletier and Jamie Sale, you might have seen something coming.

Here’s all you need to know. The Russian pairs coach, that night, before any medals were redistributed, told the press about a recent world championship in which the Canadians won, even though her skaters felt they did.

“We did not complain,” she said. “Now it is our turn.”

Our turn. Remember that phrase. Our turn. That’s the part you don’t hear about the Olympics. These nations and their incestuous federations can quickly become a scrambling mob of children, looking to save face and take sides. The embarrassment Russia felt on that medal stand when the rest of us were cheering the Canadians is the catalyst for this awful blotch — a headline stealer that comes, perhaps not accidentally, on the night of the Olympics’ most celebrated event, fittingly a showdown between an American and a Russian figure skater.

By this morning, it may be fixed. Or it may be worse. But it will not be over. This is a mess, not our fault perhaps, but a mess. The Olympics should never go to bed with the threat of a major player walking out.

It did Thursday night. The Russians wanted their pound of flesh, and they grabbed for it, at the most embarrassing moment, in front of the whole world.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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