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It's a weird world of sports, but Winter Games have charms too

Americans don't really get the Winter Olympics, but that doesn't mean we can't enjoy them.

February 12, 2010|Bill Plaschke

Reporting from Vancouver, Canada — The charm and challenge of the Winter Olympics could be found Thursday in the bewildered face of the man who had just been chosen to carry the U.S. flag in Friday night's opening ceremony.

A 39-year-old dude who rides a sled.

"I was just floored," said Mark Grimmette, a balding, soft-spoken fellow who is vastly different from the average American in more than just his two medals in four previous Olympics.

He's vastly different because he lives on a luge.

Americans don't luge. Americans haul out the sled on snow days, we take it to the nearest public golf course, ride down the 15th fairway until we get soaking wet, then return home to gleefully slide around the house in our socks.

Americans don't luge unless it's a video game. Americans don't skeleton unless its Halloween. Americans don't biathlon unless it's on sale.

For many of us, Nordic combined is Vikings versus Packers, curling is something that happens at Supercuts, and aerials was a Disney mermaid.

For the next two weeks, this shiny sweet city of Vancouver and its haunting mountains will be the site of some of the greatest athletic achievements in the world.

I just wish Americans got it. I just wish we could really get our arms around these Games without feeling as if we're doing so with sweaty mittens.

"It's tough," acknowledged Grimmette, who is the perfect choice for flag bearer, a strange dude leading a team of 216 athletes we mostly don't understand.

They play sports we never see in our neighborhoods. When is the last time you've driven past a ski ramp or bobsled track?

They are composed of a demographic that does not mirror our own. The U.S. team has three African Americans, and there are more athletes from Alaska than either Texas or Florida.

And they don't dominate as we are accustomed to dominating. In the Summer Olympics, the U.S. has won more than twice as many medals as any other country. In the Winter Olympics, we have won 64 fewer medals than, um, Norway.

"Part of the reason we don't get the Winter Games is that we just don't understand the sports -- 300,000 Swedes lining a snow-covered path to watch people skiing strikes us as absurd," said Mark Dyreson, sports historian and professor at Penn State. "But part of it is also bald nationalism. We don't like it because we're not top dog."

Of course, we love figure skating. Ever since Tonya Harding's people arranged to have Nancy Kerrigan whacked in the knee with a lead pipe, we have loved figure skating.

We also love snowboarding, because it's done by those same kids crashing around our supermarket parking lots on skateboards, giving us hope that even our flaky teenagers can one day strike gold.

The rest of the stuff? Most of it makes no sense. Why would you want to ski around with a rifle on your back?

It is so typical of the Winter Olympics to put the American flag not in the hands of pinup skier Lindsey Vonn or snowboard legend Shaun White, but one Mark Grimmette.

He picked up the sport at age 14 when he noticed a construction crew demolishing his favorite sledding hill in a park near his Muskegon, Mich., home. They said they were building a luge course.

"I had never heard of luge," he said. "But they needed volunteers to help build the course, so I hammered some nails."

You are correct, this would be like Michael Jordan taking up basketball after laying down the floor of the neighborhood gym.

Grimmette still works as a carpenter, spending last summer building a screened-in porch for one of the U.S. luge officials.

"He hasn't complained yet, so I guess it's still standing," he said.

You are correct, this would be like Kobe Bryant remodeling Mitch Kupchak's kitchen.

These Winter Olympics will be filled with strange, wonderful stories such as this.

"I'll never get rich doing this," said Grimmette, echoing most of the folks marching behind Friday night. "I do it because I love it."

Dyreson suggested that to make the Winter Games more accessible and enjoyable to Americans, one could reasonably add the sports of basketball, volleyball and wrestling.

I say leave it as it is. I wish Americans got it, but that doesn't mean we can't still dig it. The stories are cool, the views are spectacular, and what other sports competition can still buffet our brains and stretch our imagination?

Besides, where else can I ask a flag bearer where he keeps his silver and bronze medals, and hear Mark Grimmette answer quietly that they are "in a sock drawer," and even more quietly admit it is a dresser he built himself.

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