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

LA PLAGNE, France — I rarely go to bobsled races, because I can see the same thing at a bank robbery. Two guys in masks come running out, jump in a vehicle, duck and drive away. Big deal.

But I did attend the Olympic bobsled race Sunday, because certain circumstances demanded it, such as national interest, and the fact that if I didn’t go to bobsled, I had to go to figure skating, in which the ice dancers

were scheduled to do The Original Mandatory Program, which this year is . . . the polka! I am not making this up. Roll out . . . the barrel!

Also, Herschel Walker.

He was another reason I chose bobsled. As you probably know, Mr. Walker
— not a good name for this sport, when you think about it — is a famous football star who was rushed in to boost U.S. bobsledding, much the way he has boosted the Minnesota Vikings. True, the Vikings haven’t won an important game since Herschel showed up three years ago, and word is they were happy he switched to an amateur sport, because at least fans would stop complaining that they weren’t getting their money’s worth.

But, hey. I bet those people know nothing about bobsled. Of course, neither did Herschel as of a year ago. But he has bigger thighs.

Which is why he was rushed in and given, in no particular order, a tryout, a helmet, a team jacket and the top driver. Too bad he wasn’t given some instructions.

On Saturday, in Herschel’s first-ever two-man race — nothing like starting at the top, as they say in bobsled — he made a boo-boo. He jumped in the sled too soon.

“I couldn’t figure out why our start times weren’t faster,” said driver Brian Shimer, who knows that in bob — as we experts call it — the start is everything. “Then I looked at the film, and I suggested that Herschel wait a little longer, take another step or two before jumping in.”

Shimer was only asking Herschel to do what Vikings coaches have been asking for years, namely stay up a little longer before going down. But, hey. If this were your first race in a supersonic sled, you might jump a little early, too. I mean, can you imagine pushing the thing so hard that suddenly, it takes off without you, and you’re left in the middle of the track wearing nothing but a skin-tight body suit, while all these Austrians are laughing their heads off. “Ha, ha, Gunther. Look! He is waiting for da bus!” Third-person bobsled?

Herschel’s rear entry wasn’t Shimer’s only problem. Thanks to the lack of a sled technician — U.S. team officials told him “they couldn’t afford one”
— Shimer learned just two days before the race that his sled runners were illegal. He had to stay up nights to modify them.

Poor guy. In one race he had troubles with Walkers and Runners.

Eventually, both problems were addressed. But by that point, USA I, also known as “Herschel and the Other Guy,” was out of medal contention.

“Of course I’m disappointed,” Walker said after finishing seventh.
“Herschel comes to win.”

(By the way, Herschel likes to talk about himself in the third person. Don’t ask me why. Isiah Thomas does it, too, and I never understood that, either. Like when he says, “This is what Isiah is about. . . .” Wait a minute. Do I have the wrong guy? Did Isiah leave the room? Did I forget my glasses and accidentally start interviewing Charles Thomas? No. Athletes just do this. And, to be honest, Mitch thinks it’s pretty annoying.)

Anyhow, back to Herschel.

And another quote: “Herschel came to win a medal.”

Well. All right. I can understand that. So did everybody at these games, with the possible exception of the Honduras luge team, which probably came to avoid monsoon season.

But the thing is — and hear me out on this — I don’t think we deserve a medal. Even if we had the fastest time. No Herschel-come-latelies

To be honest, if Walker and Shimer had captured a gold Sunday, I would have immediately called for the expulsion of bobsled as an Olympic sport. Hey. If a guy can just fly over after the NFL season, take a few practice runs, never race in competition, and win a gold, then the damn thing is too easy.

The Swiss team won Sunday’s race, followed by the two German teams. The Swiss pair has a combined 11 years’ experience. Both German brakemen — Herschel’s position — have been in bobsled since 1985. These guys go to World Cup competitions, they practice endlessly, they study sled construction, they read trade magazines. They’re probably the only people to see the movie “What About Bob?” and come out saying, “No sleds. Bummer.”

Now, true, these guys never took a handoff from Wade Wilson, but do you really need that? Isn’t it more important to have some race experience, a sled technician, or the correct runners?

What happened here, if you ask me, is the U.S. bobsled people got a little greedy. They wanted success, fast, along with publicity, two things they haven’t had recently. Athletes such as Herschel — and Edwin Moses and Willie Gault — seemed to be a quick fix to their problems. And it’s true, U.S. bobsled got a lot more reporters up the hill Sunday than in past Olympics. But all that meant was more journalists to chronicle a very simple lesson: Practice makes perfect.

Not an NFL jersey.

“Will you compete next year?” someone asked Walker.

“You’re asking me to predict the future,” he said. “And Herschel doesn’t predict.”

“How about the 1994 Olympics?”

“Herschel doesn’t predict.”

“Do you think you would have done better with even one season’s worth of racing?”

“That’s like a prediction.”

(Getting a little frustrated with all this, I asked Herschel how he did in his first football game. And he said, “Pretty good.” Then I asked whether he got better in subsequent games. He said, “Oh, yeah. That’s the experience factor.” When I asked him to apply this to bobsled, he said, “You’re trying to get me to say we’d be better with more experience. But that’s kinda like a prediction. And Herschel doesn’t . . .”)

You get the idea.

Now, it’s true, not everyone was discouraged by Sunday’s race — even though Herschel’s start times, which are basically all he’s there for, were beaten in all four runs by a number of competitors, including the Swiss brakeman, who is a locksmith in real life, and a German brakeman, who is a building engineer. Maybe Herschel needs a new job.

We’ll see. The four-man competition is this weekend, and with Herschel pushing, some U.S. officials are actually predicting a gold. I guess they figure a week is long enough to build a career.

You know what? I hope somebody else wins it. Not to be unpatriotic, but I’d rather applaud some team that’s been working together season after season, traveling in vans, going to small races, dreaming of the Olympics.

As for coming back to watch our team? I’ll pass. Like I said, if I want to watch somebody steal something, I’ll go to a bank robbery. It’s a lot warmer.


How USA I (Brian Shimer and Herschel Walker) fared in the two- man bobsled
(with rank in each run and overall standings): RUN TIME RK ALL 1st 1:00.34 6th 6th 2nd 1:01.27 10th 9th 3rd 1:01.22 8th 9th 4th 1:01.12 4th 7th TOT 4:03.95 0.69 behind


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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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