LILLEHAMMER, Norway — He is running a power drill when the telephone rings. He claims he is making a door handle.
“Hey, I gotta work these days,” Bill Johnson said from the house he is building in Colorado. “After this, I gotta do the fireplace.” He stops, hears himself, then laughs, the way he laughed once 10 years ago, when he charmed the world in Sarajevo, boasting that he knew he would win the gold medal, and what it meant to him was “millions and millions!”
It didn’t, of course. He partied as much as he trained, he fell off the rainbow and, eventually, off the mountain. He never went to another Olympics. These days he is employed by Crested Butte Resort, where he glad-hands visiting skiers as a plastic-booted ambassador. When they hear his name they say, “Bill Johnson? You’re that guy who won the Olympics. . . .”
Early Sunday he got a call from a friend: “Guess what? Tommy took the gold.” Bill Johnson, now 33, lay in bed with a rush of deja vu — wait, that’s wrong, because deja vu means it comes back to you, and Johnson admits that moment never left him.
How could it leave him, such a delicious high in American skiing? First day of the Olympics, in a Yugoslav town you would no longer recognize, on a mountain known as Bjelasnica. Johnson was a pioneer that day, a laughing, wisecracking, thumb-nosing pioneer. He was the first American to win the Olympic downhill. Now there is a second. A medal and some money
Sunday morning, on a twisting course called Kvitfjell, a kid named Tommy Moe, who had never won a World Cup ski race in his life, burst from the blocks
into an icy drop and greased- lightninged his way to history. He is a 23-year-old blond — same as Johnson was in Sarajevo — with a history of being his own man — same as Johnson — and at 16, he was put on probation by the U.S. ski team for disciplinary reasons — same as Johnson. Americans don’t win many elite downhill races, but give us credit: When we do, we send characters.
“Did the fact that the USOC is awarding $15,000 to gold medalists have any influence on your race?” someone asked Moe afterward.
“The USOC is giving money?” he said, surprised. He raised a hand like a college kid. “All right! That’s the best news I’ve heard today!”
Well. No. The best news came in two-minute intervals as he stood at the bottom of Kvitfjell and watched skiers cross the line in times slower than his. Patrick Ortlieb of Austria, the defending gold medalist, checked in .26 second behind and finished fourth. Ed Podivinsky of Canada missed by .12.
Finally, when the hill began to spit down skiers from Bulgaria and Mexico, Tommy Moe knew it was over: They couldn’t catch him. He raised his fists, and the mobs of Austrian and Swiss fans — who are used to winning downhills the way Americans are used to winning basketball games — packed up their banners and cowbells and trudged through the snow.
“Tommy, Hillary wants to congratulate you,” someone said.
“Hilary Lindh?” Moe said, thinking of the American skier.
“Hillary Clinton,” he was told.
Well, we said he was different. A pair of champions
Although Americans have been ridiculed for their lack of Alpine success
— “half the cows in Switzerland ski faster than the U.S. team,” Sports Illustrated wrote last week — Moe mastered Kvitfjell like a Porsche mastering a parking lot. He blistered the turns and flew off the Russi Jump with his skis so high, it seemed as if he were literally pulling himself up by the bootstraps.
Which, in a way, he was. Winning the Olympic downhill is every bit as glamorous as winning the Olympic figure skating, and Moe will be showered now with money and fame — as well as lofty and unrealistic expectations.
As he held up his medal for photographers, you almost could see Johnson a decade earlier. These days, Johnson sees his medal only when a TV crew asks him to fetch it for a “Where-is- he-now?” piece. He has a job, a wife, a son, another baby on the way. He has this house to build.
“What would I tell Tommy now?” he said from Colorado. “Make sure you keep winning — and have someone else answer your phone.”
Funny. For all these years, Bill Johnson, quirks and all, has been the only American to tame the Olympic skiing monster. Now a kid cast partly in his image has done it again. Make no mistake: It might not be football or baseball, but, globally speaking, this is a big day for American sports.
Johnson says he will watch the Olympics on TV. He knows Tommy Moe from the circuit. He is asked to describe him.
“Describe him? He’s the Olympic champion.”
He laughs and starts the power drill, and it’s a new day for America’s golden boys, old and new.