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20TH WINTER OLYMPIC GAMES | Bill Plaschke

U.S. Travails Cause an Epiphany in Snow

February 27, 2006|Bill Plaschke

PRAGELATO, Italy — Here in a town that sounds wonderfully like an ice cream, we were three frosty scoops.

The flavors were rocky humiliation, chocolate mint embarrassment, and French almond wimp.

It happened early one snowy afternoon near the conclusion of the Olympic 15-kilometer cross-country ski race in this rural Alpine village.

As the only three American journalists at the race -- from New York, Miami and Los Angeles -- we had spent most of the morning warm and dry and giggling.

Watching the first part of this strange affair on the media room television, we were struck by how the U.S. skiers were continually pushed aside and run over and just plain passed by Swedish and Norwegian skiers.

They looked like snowmobiles, we looked like shovels.

"When is somebody going to finally fix our cross-country ski team?" I pompously questioned. "Where do they train, at the U.S. Olympic Quicksand Center?"

Soon, it was time to venture out in the snowstorm to interview the racers.

This was where the humor ended, and the Good Humor began.

Nature had transformed the path to the media area into a curving, dipping luge track.

We three American journalists began walking down the path and immediately, one by one, slipped. We slid. We schussed. We panicked.

We couldn't do it. We could not make a simple 50-yard walk down a gentle incline through the snow. Not without wildly shouting and blindly lunging.

We grabbed the arms of guards, of each other, finally slowing to a stop, huddling together to contemplate our next move.

And then we saw them.

The Scandinavian scribes.

A Norwegian reporter jogged past us wearing what appeared to a be a short-sleeved shirt. Another sprinted by with his computer tied behind his back.

A Swedish writer skipped past while dictating on his cellphone. Another Swedish media type, snow caked on his cap-less head, strolled along with a notebook in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other.

We were pushed aside. We were run over. We were just plain passed. And that's when it hit me with all the succinct wallop of a "duh."

So this is why America doesn't love the Winter Olympics.

Because the Winter Olympics has nothing to do with America.

How can I ever again criticize our cross-country skiers for getting waxed -- I've been dying to use that expression all week -- when the same thing would happen to the rest of us?

We don't ride sleds past the age of 8. We don't ice skate past the age of acne.

The only person we know who can shoot and ski at the same time is Vin Diesel, so that pretty much kills that whole biathlon thing.

Sure, the wealthier among us like to ski downhill. And those who prefer their blue jeans two sizes too big, they like to snowboard.

But, in general, the Winter Olympics don't look or sound like America, so America is slowly losing interest while American athletes are slowly losing their footing.

Remember how the U.S. Alpine ski team was supposed to be the Olympic equal of the Austrians? Well, the Austrians won in a first-round knockout, 14 medals to two.

This is because the quick, strong, daredevil athletes in Austria ski, while those same types of athletes in the U.S. play something called football.

Remember how we could have had several medals in figure skating?

Well, the Russians won three gold medals because your best Russian athletic actors are figure skaters, while ours are playing in the NBA.

We won plenty of medals in Turin, sure, but most of them were in either a sport we invented, snowboarding, or one that is led by a guy stolen from another sport, former roller skater Chad Hedrick in speedskating.

During two mostly tepid weeks here, the American ratings were falling, the American excitement was falling, and the bottom was nowhere in sight.

"The Winter Olympics don't resonate with me, or with any of my friends, or really anyone I know," said Larry Salomon, a lecturer in the College of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State. "For many Americans, I think, they are the ugly stepchild of the Summer Olympics."

Salomon, of Lebanese Colombian heritage, describes himself as a big sports fan, yet he said he'd watched a total of about two Olympic hours during the last weeks.

"I just can't identify with it," he said. "It's still pretty much all white, and it's pretty much people who come from some sort of money."

Nothing rocked these Olympics in America like the saga of Shani Davis, the first black athlete to win an individual gold in the Winter Olympics.

Yet, the buzz has more to do with reinforcing stereotypes than breaking them down.

"When somebody calls those 'watershed moments,' that's laughable," Salomon said. "I just don't think anybody right now is lining up to buy ice skates."

These Games are so racially skewed, Davis' gold medal didn't erase differences, it only highlighted them.

Yet, there is little cry to increase diversity in these Games because, well, that assumes that there are children everywhere just dying to spend five hours a day in four feet of snow or a Lycra bodysuit.

"Lack of diversity is only a big problem if kids are knocking on the door and can't get in, but that's not happening," Salomon said. "People just aren't playing these sports, period."

The problem, Salomon says, is that no diversity of faces leads to diversity of attention.

"Because of how the Games look, many people here just don't care," Salomon said. "They don't get into it, and never will."

On that snowy afternoon at cross-country skiing, we managed to reach the interview area and return safely to the media center, but only after another harrowing incident that left us clinging to a portable railing while trying to navigate an incline the size of the average Southern California driveway.

By the time we got back inside, the Scandinavian scribes were just finishing their stories.

We were embarrassed. We were out of place. Turns out, we weren't the only ones.

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.

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