Hidden Forces During a week at the Winter Olympics, obscure athletes driven by invisible powers created the most glorious moments

February 23, 1998

Ski jumpers, like airplane travelers, rely on blind faith in
invisible forces. When a man traveling almost 60 mph leaps from
a ski jump at precisely the right moment, the air slams his ski
tips to his shoulders, carrying him a greater distance in flight
than Barry Sanders covers on the ground most Sundays. However,
leap too soon and the ski tips snap downward, like the wing
flaps on an Airbus: The jumper flies heels-over-head into the
ether, leaving him just enough time, and in the perfect
position, to kiss his ass goodbye.

Naturally, ski jumping is the national winter sport of Japan,
where one Olympic jumper is called Kamikaze Kasai. The Japanese,
of all people, have no word for pressure, though pressure is the
most powerful of unseen elements that can act on an athlete. So,
instead of leaning on an English crutch word, Japanese jumper
Masahiko Harada articulates pressure as "the weight of a
nation." His teammate Kazuyoshi Funaki says of sitting alone on
a beam atop a ski jump and looking down at the sky, "I feel a
sensation down my spine. It's a fantastic feeling--tension in
the good sense."

All of this will become relevant in due time, but for now
suffice it to say that these have been the Olympics of unseen
forces acting on invisible athletes. The Hidden Olympics are
those that go largely uncovered by television. Of course, the
exploits of America's few superstars have been played and
replayed with Zapruder-like analysis--Picabo, we've seen
you--but what of the rest of the Yanks? And what of the rest of
the world?

Last Saturday, Bjorn Daehlie of Norway joined former Soviet and
Unified Team cross-country skier Raisa Smetanina as the most
decorated Winter Olympian ever, winning his 10th medal. But he
did so in a sport, cross-country skiing, that is so unappealing
to spectators that the first words from the P.A. announcer after
Daehlie's silver medal performance in the 15K were, "Ladies and
gentlemen, thank you for your patience."

Last Thursday in the 10K, Daehlie won his sixth gold medal,
surpassing a pair of speed skaters, the U.S.'s Eric Heiden and
Finland's Clas Thunberg, as the male Winter Olympian with the
most golds, but you have most likely never before seen his face.
He is Eric Hidin'. In the final 200 meters of Saturday's race,
the 30-year-old Daehlie was passed by his younger countryman
Thomas Alsgaard, who happens to live 200 meters from Daehlie on
a street called Kathinka Guldbergs Vei in the small town of
Nannestad, about 20 miles north of Oslo. Afterward Daehlie said
something outrageous by today's sports standards.

"I couldn't go faster than I did today," he confessed. "I am
very satisfied with the silver medal. I was not better." When
pressed by disappointed journalists who had come to see him win
a seventh gold and thus surpass retired Soviet speed skater
Lydia Skoblikova and former Russian cross-country skier Lyubov
Egorova as the most gilded Olympian of either gender, Daehlie
declined to detonate. "I'm not disappointed at all," he said.
"When you don't win and you see why, it's quite easy to accept."

Daehlie might have won his seventh gold earlier in the week, but
he had used the wrong ski wax during the 30K and finished 20th.
Bad wax is not the bane of Madame Tussaud alone. In
cross-country, bad wax must be avoided at all costs, which is
why Russian stars Larissa Lazhutina and Olga Danilova have won
three golds and two silvers between them: An Oz-like Russian
army colonel named Alexander Voronin spends some 20 hours a day
during the Olympics applying all manner of homemade ablutions to
their skis in a secret location near the Snow Harp course in
Hakuba.

A former top skier himself, the 48-year-old native of Sakhalin,
an island off the east coast of Russia, rises for work at 5 a.m.
"We sleep no more than two to three hours a day," Voronin will
sigh, if you can find him, and you can't, so don't bother. He
makes next to no money, and he is absolutely indispensable. "I
can trust him with my life, let alone my skis," says Lazhutina,
who adds, "He has the hands of gold."

Such are the often unseen powers at work in these Olympics. Zhao
Hongbo and Shen Xue of China finished fifth in the figure
skating pairs, but anyone who saw Zhao flinging Shen into the
arena sky and catching her--flinging and catching, flinging and
catching, outrageously high, like she was so much pizza
dough--is unlikely to forget it. How to explain the spectacle,
except as a confluence of invisible forces: of air pressure and
crowd pressure, of bearing up under the weight of a nation.
Which brings us back to ski jumping.

Funaki won the silver medal on the 90-meter jump west of Nagano
last week, but Harada buckled with all of Japan in his backpack.
He led the field after the first of his two jumps but faltered
in his second, finishing fifth, a performance ghoulishly
reminiscent of Lillehammer, where four years ago Harada's
unaccountably short second jump in the team competition cost
Japan a gold medal. "He has a very painful feeling right now,"
Funaki said last week of his kindly teammate, who became a
national object of sympathy after weeping in the snow in Norway.
"Perhaps that feeling will be an energy source for the 120-meter
jump."

Instead, Harada seemingly fell out of the running for a medal in
the 120 meters on Sunday, finding himself in sixth place after
his first jump. Many in the crowd of 30,000, measle-spotted with
Japanese flags, couldn't bear to watch him go again. For four
years the impossibly upbeat man called "Happy" Harada had been,
to the Japanese, like the deathbed patient who always ends up
consoling those who've come to console him. But even Harada's
uncommon decency would be tested by yet another Olympian
disappointment. So Harada simply rose from the beam for a second
time, skied down the in-run, and--how else to put this?--defied
conventional physics.

Leaping from the lip of the jump, Harada was borne--by an energy
source, an invisible force--beyond every measuring line on the
hill. He flew and flew, his skis raised in a Churchillian V,
until he touched down in unmarked snow beyond the 135-meter
stripe. That line had been deemed, on this hill, on this day, to
be the outer limit of human flight, so no other lines had been
laid down.

The jump (more or less guessed to be 136 meters) brought Harada
a bronze medal and raised many questions about the physical laws
of the universe. Harada, for one, thanked phenomena that were
indeed unseen, though not unheard. "I thank my wife, who has
supported me for four years and blessed me with two children,"
he said. "I could hear them saying, 'Daddy, do your best.'" He
paused and added, "Now I can at last tell them: 'Daddy did it.'"

Immediately after the event, Harada was interviewed live on
Japanese television, even though it was Funaki, seven years
younger, who won the gold. Sensibly, the reporter could think of
nothing appropriate to say and began weeping. Seeing this,
Harada began to weep. After a pause, the network cut to the
studio, where the anchorman, naturally, was weeping. He required
a moment to collect himself, like Walter Cronkite after JFK's
death. Only these were tears of joy, "tension in the good sense."

Meanwhile, back at the Samaranch, U.S. lugers were winning the
nation's first Olympic medals in that sport. The U.S. coach,
Wolfgang Schadler, is a bearded, chain-smoking Geppetto who
builds sleds in his garage in Liechtenstein for men like Brian
Martin, who, when not winning an Olympic medal, sells beer and
hot dogs from a cart on the 9th hole of the Lake Placid Golf Club.

At 3 a.m. last Friday in Lake Placid, while Martin and teammate
Mark Grimmette were finishing third in the men's doubles,
friends gathered at the U.S. training hill to toast the lugers
with bottles of Cold Duck. The pair finished just behind Gordy
Sheer and Chris Thorpe, their U.S. teammates. Sheer plays drums
in a band called Jim, whose first CD was called Burn the Boo, a
reference to an unfortunate bamboo fire that the group started
while performing in a Polynesian restaurant in upstate New York.

Like the rest of his luge teammates, Sheer will not return from
these Olympics a rich man, or a famous one, or even one who is
vaguely familiar to most anybody. "I don't expect to be walking
down the street and hear people say, 'Hey, that's the luge
guy!'" says Sheer. "Honestly, all I expect this to do is spark a
whole new round of doubles luge jokes." He will, however, return
to a circle of friends who drink Cold Duck, tell lewd luge jokes
and play in Polynesian restaurants. One could clearly do worse.

Anticipating his own arrival on Sunday at San Francisco
International Airport, Jonny Moseley, the U.S. gold medalist in
freestyle moguls, said, "Hopefully, there will be a big crowd at
the airport and they'll shove a beer in my hand, and that'll be
it."

In other words, let Picabo Street's agent not only angle (as he
did last week) for the $500 honorarium that Wheaties
traditionally gives to the athletes that it honors on its box,
but also insist that her manifold sponsorship logos appear on
the box. His client surely knows that the Olympics are not
primarily about anything tactile. To preserve her NCAA
eligibility, U.S. women's hockey player and Harvard senior A.J.
Mleczko declined a $1,100-a-month Olympic training stipend and
camped instead with friends and family while living out of her
'88 Isuzu Trooper, which still reeks of drying hockey equipment.
Says Mleczko, "I just didn't like the idea of giving up
something I love so much because of money."

"Money," says Russian wax-man Voronin, who lives on an army
salary of $350 a month, "is never the most important thing in
life."

Rather, what is most valued is the intangible, the invisible,
the ephemeral. "A few of these people I'll probably never see
again," says Angela Ruggiero, Mleczko's Olympic teammate.
"They'll quit playing, they'll be gone. It's all gone by so fast."

It's gone in .022 of a second, which is the margin by which
Sheer and Thorpe missed winning the gold medal. "Hundredths [of
a second] are drivable, noticeable differences," says Sheer.
"Thousandths are fate, or who blew their nose." But that is what
makes Olympic medalists, is it not--that which is undetectable
to the eye?

That is surely what makes the Olympic Games. On Sunday, Harada
said, "I would like to engrave this event in my heart and
remember it forever." What is bronze for, if not preserving
memories?

Memories are invisible souvenirs, which is as it should be, for
the best moments of these Games have been invisible: skis guided
by "hands of gold," a jumper borne by the hand of God. Years
from now Harada can still call up those memories and feel--how
did his teammate put it?--a sensation down the spine. A day
after Valentine's Day in 1998, he engraved his memories where he
can always find them, turning his heart into a heart-shaped
locket.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY NANCIE BATTAGLIA Big chill Grimmette (12) and Martin glided to the bronze as the U.S. won its first luge medals. [Mark Grimmette and Brian Martin in luge competition] COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS MEN AT WORK U.S. curler Mike Peplinski made himself heard, while the seemingly invincible Daehlie got waxed in the 30K race, finishing a disappointing 20th. [Mike Peplinski curling] COLOR PHOTO: SIMON BRUTY [See caption above--Bjorn Daehlie] COLOR PHOTO: BOB MARTIN Leap of faith Harada soared to a bronze with a second jump that could have been divinely inspired. [Masahiko Harada ski-jumping]

"All I expect this to do is spark a whole new round of doubles
luge jokes," says Sheer.

"I would like to engrave this event in my heart and remember it
forever," said Harada.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)