About 4,000 miles from the nearest NFL city, at the foot of La Plagne, a chalet-laden French Alpine village so picturesque it should be encased in a little glass ball, dozens of American fans wore cheerfully inappropriate T-shirts over their ski parkas, BO KNOWS DIDDLEY, BUT HERSCHEL KNOWS SNOW, the shirts read. Herschel Walker is a multitalented man. Just ask him. Here is his rèsumè: running back for the Minnesota Vikings, second-degree black belt in taekwondo, poet, sometime ballet dancer, barber, cardplayer, Olympic bobsledder. But Olympic medalist? Not as of Sunday.
Walker and driver Brian Shimer, the top American two-man bobsled team, stumbled last weekend in their attempt to become the first U.S. bobsledders to take home a medal since 1956. They placed seventh among 46 sleds, .69 of a second behind gold medalists Gustav Weder and Donat Acklin of Switzerland. This Friday and Saturday, Walker will be the brakeman for the USA I sled in the four-man bob. He is the only American entered in both events.
All that Walker won last week was a card game with fellow U.S. bobsledders Greg Harrell and Karlos Kirby during a bus trip up the mountain to La Plagne, where they were staying. The losers had to carry the luggage from the bus to the sledders' rooms. Indeed, despite what the T-shirts said. Walker, 29, who was raised in Wrightsville, Ga., never saw snow until he was 10, and never thought much about ice until he was traded from the Dallas Cowboys to Minnesota in 1989. But he swore his Olympian role was not merely an exercise in vanity. "I'll compete anytime," he said last week. "You can call me at 3 a.m. and say you want to compete, and I'll be ready. I came over here to win. It's not about coming to France or wearing a U.S.A. uniform."
Walker was an enthusiastic, if odd, member of his first Olympic team. Here's how he occupied himself during the first week of the Games. Besides engaging in his normal daily routine of 2,000 sit-ups and 1,500 push-ups, he ran four miles ever)' morning in the mountains, cut teammates' hair, wrote a poem comparing bobsledding to football, told tall tales about himself and chafed to race. "I'm a thoroughbred in the chute," he said.
On Saturday, after the first two of the two-man bob's four heats, Walker claimed that he had eaten nothing in France except bread, water and a few french fries. When it was suggested to him that bread and water were jail fare, he said, "Sometimes life is like jail."
Ironically, Walker and Shimer's downfall was caused by what most observers, including Walker, had predicted would be their greatest strength: the all-important start. Walker's primary job was to put his power to the sled and use his sprinter's speed to push it for 50 meters as fast as possible, ideally reaching the 50-meter mark in less than six seconds. Beyond that, he was merely required to enjoy the ride.
Walker and Shimer had had only 30 training runs together, about a tenth of the number taken by the better teams. Perhaps predictably then, their starts in Albertville were only slightly better than average—Walker never reached 50 meters in less than six seconds—and they had the 10th, 11th, seventh and sixth fastest times, respectively, in the four heats. Shimer, who was a pusher on a U.S. four-man bob at the 1988 Games, drove four fairly clean runs, but the pair could not make up for their inconsistency at the start and Walker's clumsiness getting into the sled.
One of these days, maybe this pro-athlete-turns-bobsledder experiment will work. What could be more logical? At 6'1", 220 pounds, Walker is a mass of speed and power who gave fits to a local tailor who was altering his U.S.A.-uniform skin. Walker needed a 40-inch waist size to fit the uniform over his 29½-inch thighs, but his waist is only 31 inches around. As Walker put it, giving a 440-pound bobsled a good shove wasn't much different from putting a solid block on a football sled.
Following Sunday's competition Walker would not say whether he would stay with the sport. He did raise the possibility, though, that he might appear in a Summer Olympics someday, as a competitor in taekwondo, his first love. As for his experience in Albertville, he simply said, "There's no doubt I've had fun."