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Mike Downey

Winter Olympics: Calgary : U.S. May Have Mettle, but No Gold Medals

February 11, 1988|MIKE DOWNEY

Americans like to have a good time, wherever they go. Even on business trips, their customary objective is to eat good food, see the sights, do as the Romans do, and hang onto their travelers' checks to keep from having to call Karl Malden.

At the Winter Olympics, where the winning of medals is supposed to take full priority over having fun, American athletes have managed to squeeze in a chuckle now and then.

There was that practical joke, for instance, at the 1980 Games in Lake Placid, N.Y., when speed skater Beth Heiden returned to her room, pulled down the covers of her bed--and found a dead shark. A teammate had swiped it from the Norwegian team's food supply.

An American looking for a good time in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, in 1984, had to work a little harder at it. Hockey player Chris Chelios, now with the Montreal Canadiens, joined the crowd one night at a restaurant, high in the mountains, called the Bellevue, where his father, a Chicago restaurateur, threw a wild party at which he roasted a whole goat on a spit, then ate the eyes.

A visitor to Sarajevo could always find a little corner restaurant that served pizza with ya-ya on top and an ice-cold bottle of pivo. That was the way many an American journalist ended a day, Lord knows.

The ya-ya was fried egg, which was crumbled atop the crust of the pizza. The pivo was Serbo-Croatian for beer, bottles of which usually featured a picture of Vucko ( Vootch -ko), the grinning-wolf mascot of the XIV Olympic Winter Games, on the labels.

A contributing factor in the attempt to keep Americans in good spirits at the last Winter Olympics was the fact that, for as much as half the festivities, their compatriots were doing so poorly. More than a week went by, in fact, before Peter and Caitlin (Kitty) Carruthers, a couple of Boston orphans, placed second in the figure skating pairs competition, giving the United States its first medal of any kind.

Pa Carruthers, 64, stood there in his lucky cap, the battered one with the earflaps, and beamed at the two kids he and his wife adopted separately from the New England Home for Little Wanderers. Ma Carruthers held an armload of daisies, and said hello to everybody back at the Marshall Simonds Middle School of Burlington, Mass., where she was a teacher.

The Americans had scored. They were on the board. It was time to celebrate. It was pivo time.

Eventually, things picked up. A sprightly skier named Debbie Armstrong won a gold medal, then personally sent her warmest wishes to the President of the United States by saying, "Hey, Ronnie, we're havin' some fun here!" Another happy-go-lucky skier, Wild Bill Johnson, guaranteed victory a la Joe Namath, waited several days for the wind to die down, then won the gold, as promised.

On the last day of the ski competition, came the Mahre brothers. They were twins, Phil and Steve, and they were the greatest Alpine racers America had. But, with only the men's slalom left to go, the Mahres had been shut out in the medal department, and, on top of that, had expressed the opinion that medals were insignificant, overrated and unnecessary in the wide world of sports, where the competition itself should have been reward aplenty.

Some thought the twins already had died with their ski boots on. Little did anybody know how fast they would go in the slalom, where Phil delivered the gold, Steve delivered the silver, and Phil's wife, Holly, delivered an 8-pound 13-ounce boy back in Scottsdale, Ariz., at the very moment her husband was riding the lift to the top of the run.

Phil broke down crying on the hill when Donna de Varona of ABC-TV gave him the news. This, he said, was the Olympic victory he would remember, not the one on the slopes.

Brother Steve said, "The people who tell you to bring home the medals don't understand what a chore it is. It's brutal. It takes skill, and luck, and all the conditions to be just right. You don't just go out there and win medals, easy as pie."

Nobody has to remind Pat Ahern of that.

Ahern, a student at the University of Alaska, competed in the Nordic combined ski competition at Sarajevo. Although no American was considered anything more than a longshot, Ahern was dazzling in the first round of the two-day event, ripping off three fine jumps, one of which was measured at 89 meters. His total distance put him in first place.

As then-U.S. Nordic Director Jim Page said, "Pat was a cinch for a medal."

That was until a jury of judges got together and decided that the wind velocity had increased to the point that the round must be re-started. Ahern's jumps were wiped off the sheet. Top European ski jumpers, who had been outdone by the American, were given new life, or, as Ahern himself said, "They got the gold mine. I got the shaft."

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