LILLEHAMMER, Norway — You hate the Olympics. The worst moments of your life have been wrapped up inside them. At the starting line, you hear a drumroll over the loudspeakers, you dig your skate blade into ice, and the only comforting thought in your windless universe is the one you had last night; no matter what, when this race is over, 73 seconds from now, that’s it for the Olympic experience. No more five-ring circus. Good-bye. Good riddance.
And there’s the gun. . . .
You hate the Olympics. Your name is Dan Jansen, and it seems as if the world has been nagging you for the last 10 years, and it always, always, has to do with the Olympics. “Too bad about the Olympics.” “Sorry about the Olympics.” You just missed getting a medal at Sarajevo in 1984; you came in fourth. Too bad about the Olympics. Then, in Calgary, 1988, your sister died the morning of your race, you raced anyhow, you slipped, you fell. They said you were “tragic.” Too bad about the Olympics.
In Albertville, 1992, you should have won, you were tentative, the ice was soft, you finished fourth in the 500, and you bombed out in the 1,000. They said you choked. Too bad about the Olympics.
Then you get here, Lillehammer, two years later. You’re the world-record holder in the 500, they say this is your time — and damn it, again you slip in the next-to-last curve. You cross the line in disbelief, almost a second slower than your ability. There’s your family in the stands, looking heartbroken, your wife, Robin, wanting to cry. The press is scribbling notes. God almighty. You’re a walking catastrophe.
Ten years? Seven races? No medals? And now, all you have left is this 1,000 meters, four Olympics scraped down to a final crumb. It is not your best event. The only good thing is that you won’t be back for more. After this, you’re going home, live with your wife, raise your daughter, a simple life in Wisconsin.
One more race.
You hate the Olympics. You’re off
The gun sends you digging, your arms pull like hacksaws, back, forth, back, forth. You are speeding, but relaxed. For some reason, more relaxed than you figured. Your strides are long and you bend in aerodynamic position, back, forth, back, forth. You’ve been speedskating since you were 4 — you are 28 now — and you still don’t feel good on this track. “Don’t push,” you tell yourself, “You’ll slip.”
That’s just what you need, right? Another slip? Bad enough, that fiasco in ’88. Your sister, Jane. Remember that? They put you on the phone that morning. Jane was in the hospital, dying of cancer. You heard the hum of her respirator. She couldn’t speak. You said good-bye. Four hours later she was gone. “Race, Dan,” your family said. “That’s what she’d want.” You tried. You failed. Ten seconds in, you were crashing on the mats. Hell on Earth began.
You hate the Olympics. Anyone who knows speedskating knows that slipping happens, it’s not that unusual. But how many of the millions watching TV that night even knew that? How many knew that the same year as “the fall” you were also the world sprint champion? Did they see you win that?
Of course not. They were watching basketball or football. Did they know that in ’92 — the year you bombed in Albertville — you were still the best in the world in the 500 meters? Where were they when you took that trophy?
Where are they now, when you win in Ikaho, Japan, or Sundstrom, Sweden, or Butte, Mont.? Where are they when you take those medals around your neck, when you hoist those plaques, when you breathe cold smoke on all those winter nights — “Ladies and gentlemen, again the winner, Dan Jansen, the champion, Dan Jansen, the record holder. Dan Jansen, the king, Dan Jansen. . . . Norway knows you. Finland knows you. Germany knows you.
America? They know Eric Heiden, because he hung five Olympic gold medals around his neck, and they know Carl Lewis, because he did the same. Don’t they realize you’ve been to more Olympics than both those guys, set more world records, collected 20 — count ’em, 20 — medals in your world championships?
No. How could they? Your home country does this quadrennial inspection of your life, they see you lose, they cluck their tongues, they go away.
The hell with them.
You hate the Olympics. Something’s happening here
But all right. Almost over now. The world is in fast- forward, you can hear cowbells and whistles and as you make the turn you see these flags waving. You churn, churn, the announcer calls your final split time, but you miss it. The crowd roars. “Must be good,” you tell yourself. “Just keep going.” You are breathing hard. Less than 30 seconds and your Olympic service is over. You’ll be free.
As you come out of the next-to-last curve, you feel a sudden wobble — no, no! — you almost slip, but you steady yourself quickly, you’re still standing, you’re still going, the long strides, the crowd getting louder. If that was your disaster, it drew no blood. Last curve now. Down the straightaway, the home stretch, sucking air, you lean, you streak past, it’s done! The Olympics are behind you, no disasters, no catastrophes, the clock, check the clock —
“A NEW WORLD RECORD FOR DAN JANSEN!” the announcer screams.
For a moment you are stunned, and suddenly, the strangest feeling, a full-body exhale, an unlocking of the soul. You hold your head in disbelief. You grab your hair, It’s like stepping under this massive waterfall, washing everything away. A world record? Is that scoreboard correct?
American flags are waving. Norwegian flags are waving. Other skaters still compete, but somehow you know this is the end of your story. Your disasters have always been by your own hand. This time, this one last time, you did everything right.
No one will beat you now.
You find Robin, your wife, with a USA flag painted on her cheek. She is weeping like a child, she grabs you, pulls you close, and what she says, again and again, is “It’s over. . . . It’s over. . . . It’s over.”
And you know what she means. It’s over, ’84, ’88, ’92, it’s over. You can finally let go, those shadows that danced in your sleep, these strangers who run their fingernails on your personal chalkboard. It’s over. All you hear now are cheers, and roars, and reporters pushing to ask questions.
“I would have been happy no matter what,” you hear yourself say, “but this just makes it . . . happier.”
You laugh at yourself. You want to say, “See?” You want to say you knew it all along. You should have five of these. You want to say, “Are you satisfied now? Is this what you wanted? Does this make it better?”
You do not do that. You don’t have it in you. Instead, you take your 9-month-old daughter for a victory skate, holding her close as she waves a little flag. And you point to the fans like a rock star, and hear them explode.
And in the end, as your Olympic life disappears, you are where you always dreamed after all, on the podium, and you lean over, and there it is, that little chunk of hardware that has snubbed you all these years.
It kisses you now. It fits like destiny. You stand up straight, the music begins, and you give a tiny salute to your sister, who is watching somewhere above the Norwegian sky. All the heartbreak, all the anger, all the nights spent alone, wondering what you did to have this hole in your heart, it pushes up now, from the deepest part of you, through the lungs, the throat, and out, finally, through the corner of your right eye, a single teardrop, falling down your cheek.
“Finally,” you hear yourself say. “Finally.”
You love the Olympics.
And “finally” is the perfect farewell.