Take my word for it, this is going to be one of the best years for Olympic losers. Indeed, as a group, they will be more exotic than the winners, more glamorous and probably more charming and definitely better for belly laughs.
In one sense—a mathematical sense—any Olympics is almost entirely about losing and losers. Figure it out. Roughly 1,750 competitors are entered in the Calgary 1988 Winter Games, but there are only 96 gold medals to be awarded—and only 35 of those are individual medals; the rest are duplicate golds awarded in team sport events, like the 30 golds set aside for the winning hockey team. It requires only simple arithmetic to realize that when the Olympics are over, there will be more than 1,600 losers—or that losers will outnumber winners by a ratio of roughly 17 to one.
But there are losers and there are losers. Many Olympians in Calgary will be defeated by close, respectable margins. These are world-class athletes who will be nosed out by other world-class athletes; athletes who competed with the firm conviction that they really had a chance to finish No. 1 in their event. For some, a silver or a bronze medal will help to ease the pain of this kind of losing—and in Calgary a total of 192 second-and third-place medals will be awarded. And finishing in, say, the top 10, 20 or 30 will be satisfying for many other expected losers—up-and-coming rookies, over-the-hill veterans, your perennial mediocrities, etc.
That is losing.
January 27, 1988
As for losing, that is done by the hapless and the hopeless, competitors who never in their wildest dreams considered the possibility of coming in first. Or fifth. Or in the top 75%. Yet, in the Olympic Games of the late 20th century, losers can be elevated to levels of attention that even some winners might envy. You see, with losing there is often an inverse—to say nothing of perverse—ratio at work: The more inept or absurd the loser, the more interesting he becomes for the media.
You may recall that at the 1984 Winter Games in Sarajevo, the press's favorite loser was a luger who represented Puerto Rico. He was George Tucker, then 36, an overweight but quick-witted doctoral student at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. When he was introduced by a Yugoslav public-address announcer as "George Turkey," Tucker murmured to a reporter, "The man knows more English than he lets on." Tucker told the press that he figured his rate of completions down the luge run without a wreck was about 75%—"good for a quarterback, but bad for a luger." He finished 30th of 30 entries, and he got a lot more press in the States than Paul Hildgartner, the Italian who won the gold medal.
Another '84 loser who was given generous quantities of ink and TV time was the Egyptian Alpine ski team, one Jamil Omar Hatem Abdulalem Jamil El Reedy, then 18, a resident of Plattsburgh, N.Y. El Reedy let it be known that he had trained for his Olympic races by spending 40 days alone in a scorpion-infested cave in Egypt's Western Desert, enduring a traditional rite of passage that his coach-father insisted upon. El Reedy told the press that he had been frightened of the creatures in the cave but that the experience had been good because "I learned that the only security is in the mind." He added that he was a little tired of jokers who asked him if he had trained for the Games by sliding down the pyramids. He finished 60th out of a field of 60 in the downhill, 46th out of 47 in the slalom, and failed to complete his first run in the giant slalom and was thus eliminated.
Also among Sarajevo's momentarily famous losers were Erroll Fraser, a black speed skater from the British Virgin Islands who was 40th of 42 in the 500-meter and 42nd of 43 in the 1,000-meter events; La-mine Gueye, a Senegalese downhill skier who is a model and actor in real life and finished 51st in the downhill (14 seconds behind the winner); Cypriot skier Lina Aristodimou, who came in last in both the slalom and giant slalom (she was not entered in the downhill); and Lebanon's four-man ski team, which barely got out of battle-torn Beirut before the airport was occupied by Shiite militiamen and could do no better than a 39th (of 47) in the slalom and 58th (of 76) in the Giant Slalom.
In Calgary there will be a similar assortment of odd and inept Olympians who will attract a similar amount of antihero worship. El Reedy is planning to give Egypt a representative in the downhill one more time, and Tucker will once again be luging for Puerto Rico.
Out of the same odd bag of winter sportsmen who hail from tropical islands comes Jamaica's bobsled team. It is made up of native-born Jamaicans, some of whom had never seen snow or stood next to an honest-to-god bobsled until August. The team sponsor, U.S. business consultant George Fitch, got the idea that there might be bobsled talent in Jamaica while watching the annual pushcart derby in Kingston last August. This event, unique to Jamaica, consists of two-man teams plunging down a steep, winding, mile-long course at breakneck speeds (up to 40 mph) in four-wheeled pushcarts which are ordinarily used to sell things like sno-cones and tomatoes along city streets. The leap from careening pushcarts to Olympic bobsleds somehow seemed logical to Fitch, and just months after he saw the race, Jamaica had its bobsled team. Even as you read this, a crew of tough, fast Jamaicans is in Lake Placid making its final training runs. There are other exotic Olympians on the agenda in Calgary—e.g., a bobsled team, skiers and lugers from the Virgin Islands, a cross-country skier from Fiji, Alpine skiers and a cross-country skier from Guatemala, and a luger from the Philippines.
They are more or less the predictable garden variety of abject Olympic loser—doughty, slightly weird and fun—but they scarcely present a truly great vintage by themselves. No, what will make Calgary '88 memorable is the presence of a couple of losers with royal blood and jet-set connections.
A pair of real-life loser princes will be performing for our entertainment. Prince Hubertus von Hohenlohe, 29, who bears a title that traces its roots to 14th-century Bohemia, expects to ski for Mexico in the Alpine events. And His Serene Highness Prince Albert Louis Alexandre Pierre of Monaco, Marquis des Baux, 29, will be piloting a two-man bobsled for his homeland on the track at Canada Olympic Park.
Though the presence of two princes in a single Games is unusual, it is by no means the only time royalty has competed in the Olympics. Indeed, an early royal winner participated in the Olympics of 66 A.D. when the Roman emperor Nero entered several events in the Games of that year. Nero was not really much good at anything, but he was accompanied by 5,000 bodyguards and, thus, he won everything he entered. He was judged the best singer, the best musician, the best herald and the best chariot driver, among other things. He won the chariot competition in spite of the fact that he fell out of his vehicle in midrace and was nearly mashed beneath its wheels. Seeing that the emperor was down, all other charioteers reined in and waited while Nero got into his chariot and whipped his horses back into action. And on to victory.
There have been other titled competitors who have won legitimate gold medals in the modern Olympics: Greece's King Constantine—then the crown prince, now in exile—won the Dragon Class in yachting in the 1960 Rome Summer Games; and Lord Burghley, the sixth marquess of Exeter, won gold in the 400-meter hurdles in the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam. A spirited if eccentric enthusiast, Lord Burghley was a longtime member of the International Olympic Committee, but he eventually became so lame that he could hardly walk, let alone hurdle. After his hipbone was surgically removed, the indomitable Olympian had the bone mounted as a hood ornament on his Rolls-Royce.
Neither Hubertus nor Albert possesses quite such panache. Hubertus is a talented, ambitious pop musician, producer and composer who has made at least one classy video—Some of My Philosophy—in which the handsome prince glides about an abandoned opera house in a series of encounters with mysterious women. He also produced a record last summer called The Rhythm Divine with Shirley Bassey and has had several of his own songs on hit lists in both Austria and Spain.
A straight-talking, humorous young fellow who speaks five languages and is within a written thesis of an Austrian university degree in economics, Prince Hubertus says of his music career, "People see a pretty face and a famous name, and they get the wrong idea. They think just because a man is a prince that he cannot be serious about music. I have broken through to the insiders in the business now, and they know that I am real."
The Hohenlohes are all cousins to the British royal family and there are five or six different branches of Hohenlohes spread out over Europe. Says Hubertus: "We have one duke in the family and everybody else is a prince. They say that ours wasn't the most elegant branch of the clan. My grandfather finally went to Bohemia, others went to Austria. Now our family is living in Spain mostly."
Spread out or not, a warm nuclear unit the Hohenlohes are not. The prince's mother, the vivacious Princess Ira von Fürstenberg, split from the prince's father, Prince Alfonso von Hohenlohe-Langenberg, more than 25 years ago. Their marriage in Venice in 1955, when she was 15 and Alfonso was 31, was hailed as the Wedding of the Year. Princess Ira's father was an impoverished Austrian prince, but her mother was a daughter of the superrich Gianelli family of Italy. Alfonso's family fortune was meager, and soon after the Wedding of the Year the couple moved to Mexico City, where he wound up running a Volkswagen distributorship. Hubertus and his brother, Christof, were born there.
After the divorce, Alfonso moved to Spain with Hubertus and Christof and started the plush Marbella Club, while Ira married, then divorced, the notorious playboy Francisco (Baby) Pignatari of Brazil. Today, ironically enough, Princess Ira and none other than His Serene Highness Prince Rainier, father of Prince Albert, are the subject of relentless rumors over whether they are or are not having an affair that could lead to marriage and to two blue-blooded offspring of the same family representing different countries in the Games.
Hubertus learned to ski on family vacations in St. Moritz and eventually became so good that he was an Austrian university downhill champion. He has skied in international competition for several years, including two world championships and the 1984 Olympics, where he finished 38th in the downhill, 26th in the slalom, and 48th in the GS. Still, his skiing has been a basic lark, devoid of the year-round training ordeals that full-time racers endure. "I start training when it snows," says the prince. "I never train like a madman, but I work pretty hard. If I arrive at the finish of the downhill eight or 10 seconds behind the winner and if I am not exhausted and if the run was not dangerous, then I feel that I have raced my best."
Prince Albert is more serious, softer-spoken, gentler, an almost angelic-looking young man with a fine-boned face in which vestiges of his late mother, Grace Kelly, are readily apparent. Although he has wide shoulders and a lithe and wiry physique, there is a sense of frailness about the prince. He seems about as far removed from the traditional image of bobsledders—scar-faced, gimlet-eyed, speed-demented daredevils—as a concert violinist. Yet Albert is a grimly determined bob driver who in his shy way is proud of what he has already accomplished. "My times at St. Moritz last year were good enough to be in the top 20 if I'd done them in the world championships," he said recently. "I'm getting so I have a sensitivity in my hands, a touch on the steering ropes, that gives me an instinctive feel in my turns down a course."
Albert has long been almost a compulsive athlete, participating while he was at Amherst College in swimming, soccer, fencing, track, judo, rowing, tennis and skiing. "I still felt I was missing something," he said of his college days. "When I was a boy I had dreams of being in the Olympics, and when the chance arose to be involved in this adventure, I jumped at it."
His bobsledding began with a tourist's ride down the St. Moritz run a couple of years ago. "I was a little impressed," said the prince, "meaning scared." But he went back again and again, found that the risk of high speeds was enjoyable and, when a Swiss friend suggested that he could train himself up to Olympic conditions, Albert went for it. Qualifying for the Monaco Winter Olympic team was no problem: It consisted of a single Alpine skier who had competed at Sarajevo. Besides, Albert had a fine Olympic heritage. Not only is he the youngest member of the International Olympic Committee but his grandfather and uncle, the two Jack Kellys of Philadelphia, had also competed in the Games, the senior winning three golds in single and double sculls in '20 and '24, the junior winning a bronze in the single sculls in '56.
Prince Albert's major problem was finding a brakeman-partner for his sled. "I had to find a citizen of Monaco in order for him to be in the Olympics," he recalled, "but we only have a few people to choose from, and you don't find many bobsledders on the Riviera. I went to all the sports clubs and finally tested 10 guys. I found two who seemed fast enough and strong enough."
The prince's No. 1 brakeman is Gilbert Bessi. He is a 29-year-old croupier at the casino in Monte Carlo who is also a sprinter and was Monaco's lone entry in the World Track and Field Championships in Rome last summer.
Albert and Bessi have been training with tenacity since August, doing everything from sprint starts to weightlifting to endless practice on the runs at St. Moritz, Igls and Calgary. Ralph Pichler of Switzerland, who is the reigning world champion in the two-man bob, witnessed the prince's first run at St. Moritz and has closely observed his progress since. "I give him pointers, tell him how I drive the specific curves," says Pichler. "He does what you tell him. But he is not enough of an athlete and he'll never have fast enough starts—not unless he has a gorilla push him. But his declared goal is simple participation, so he is realistic."
Indeed, simple participation is the declared goal of all of the losers who will appear at Calgary. So when you watch a Virgin Island bobsled zig-zag down the run or an anxious Senegalese snowplow down Mount Allan, remind yourself between belly laughs that you are watching the last true Olympic amateurs.