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COMMENTARY : There Is No Place for Eddie-the-Eagle Types at Olympics

February 28, 1988|KEN DENLINGER | Washington Post

CALGARY, Alberta — Let me be among the few to say that the most celebrated competitor in these XVth Winter Olympics is an athletic bum. Eddie Edwards had as much right to join the world's best ski jumpers here as I have to tee it up at the U.S. Open or Mr. Ed did to run in the Kentucky Derby.

I also find "The Eagle" immensely appealing. There even is a place for him and his kindred souls at the Olympics, for they offer a measure of how extraordinary the winners really are--and take some of the stuffiness out of what has become a quadrennial made-for-television special.

Edwards and the other lovable losers here--the Mexican bobsledders, the biathlete from Puerto Rico who was selling sweatshirts an hour after crossing the finish line--illustrate a dilemma growing proportionally troublesome as the Olympics have in popularity.

Every halfway competent athlete dreams of being in the Olympics. More than you would imagine actually make it. Which has many, perhaps most, sporting federations wondering: at what point does allowing the greatest number of nations to compete cheapen the event?

I am drawn to Edwards-like characters. At the Montreal Games in 1976, I watched in smiling disbelief as a Haitian took about half an hour more than the next-to-last runner to finish the 10,000 meters.

At Lake Placid in 1980, I chuckled when an official for one of the slaloms said some of the warm-country competitors practically had to be pushed out of the start area. They had not seen mountains anything close to that imposing--and were properly frightened.

In Moscow later in 1980 for the Summer Games boycotted by the United States and other Western countries, I was told that a woman swimmer from Libya had to be dragged from the pool during a long-distance event.

These are Olympians?

Sure are.

The driver who won the gold medal in two-man bobsled in 1984 and the silver medal here, Wolfgang Hoppe, complained bitterly about too many teams cluttering the competition.

My immediate reaction was: lighten up, Wolfie. The guys from Mexico, the 50ish team of native Marylanders representing the Virgin Islands, and especially the Prince of Monaco, have just as much right to the track as you do. Probably, they are more true to the Olympian notion of amateurism.

That knee-jerk reaction eventually got replaced with: Hoppe has every reason to be hopping mad. The darling no-chancers really do affect who wins. The bobsled federation agrees.

Its chairman, Klaus Kotter of West Germany, announced the other day that proposals for improving the event will include some form of seeding.

"We want sleds with equivalent potential to have the same race conditions, so there can be no controversy," Kotter said. "It is very nice to see new nations enter bobsledding and to have 41 sleds at the Olympics.

"But the growth of our sport has to be regulated. We cannot let the Virgin Islands, Jamaica or Mexico run side by side with the East Germans, the Russians and other leading countries.

"We are penalizing nobody (by seeding the sleds). We want to keep the doors open for everyone, but we want the competition for medals to be fair."

Skiing already has adopted that wisdom. For the Alpine events here, the 15 or so competitors with any chance at a medal were given first run of the mountain. Then came everybody else, among them Prince Hubertus von Hohenlohe (representing Mexico), two Cypriots and fellows from Puerto Rico and San Marino.

"We need a similar system," said Hoppe. "A first group with the top sleds, then a second group with the average competitors and a third with the newcomers. So all the sleds really battling for a medal have the same chances."

Exactly.

Ski-jumping officials were offended by Eddie The Eagle, the myopic Brit who finished 166.5 points behind winner Matti Nykanen and 53.3 points behind the next-to-last 90-meter jumper. An orange rolling down and off the slope would have gotten the same distance points as Edwards: zero.

"The Eagle drops out of the sky, he doesn't jump," huffed the chief of competition, Rob McCormack.

"We have thousands of Eddie Edwards in Norway," added the technical delegate for the ski federation, Torbjorn Yggeseth, "but we never let them jump. When you cheer Eddy Edwards, it means you don't have the base to really appreciate ski jumping."

No, it doesn't, although a good portion of the estimated 80,000 for the 90-meter jump surely were there to see if Edwards would break his bloody legs. Or worse.

It is possible to appreciate the Flying Finn, Matti Nykanen, and also generate great affection for the Flapping Eagle. Even Nykanen said the sport "needs more clowns."

Evidently, Edwards did not intrude on his competition the way the bad bobbers did on theirs. But his popularity almost surely will convince other fools to find a way, through some obscure country, to the top of the Olympic jumps.

Some Olympics sometime soon, ski jumping will need qualifying standards. Same as the U.S. Golf Association sets limits on who may enter the qualifying process for its Open; same as the Kentucky Derby recently set money-winning criteria to winnow its field.

The biathlon required the Michigan native representing Guam in the 10 kilometers here to pass two tests, so he at least knew enough to make way for the superior athletes.

"If you'd seen me back in November," said Judd Bankert, "you'd understand why."

To Edwards, to the Jamaican bobbers, to the Puerto Rican biathlete, Elliot Archilla, who even finished behind Bankert, I say: I'll pay dearly for your sweatshirts; I'll even tell your tale, for it usually is more interesting than the winner's. But I won't buy your stuff about being entitled to be on the same stage at the same time with the best.

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