Remembering one’s first Olympics

by Gary Shelton on February 8, 2018 · 1 comment

in general, Olympics

Friday, 4:30 p.m.

White. It was white all over, with white at the edges.

I stepped off the plane to Norway, and I was snow-blind. It was white, like a wedding dress in a snowstorm. White, like an eggshell on a bedsheet. White, like milk poured over a polar bear.

I left the plane, and the world had turned vanilla. There was white ground and white sky, and white people with white hair. It was as if I had arrived on another planet, and I hated it.

This was the Winter Olympics?

I'll say this for Norway. It was going to look good in the rear-view mirror.

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Now, on the verge of another Olympics, I cannot help but think back 24 years ago to Norway.

It was my first Winter Games, and I felt completely out of place. I was a kid who had grown up in the South, where winter meant there may have been a day or two you needed a sweater. You didn't dream of speed skating, or figure skating, when I grew up. You would chase a ball across a red clay infield, and that was it.

The Games were different for me; I watched some hockey with the birth of the Atlanta Flames. Some skiing, but not a lot. Now, I was in Lillehammer for three weeks. Frankly, it was cold. I was a little miserable.

Ah, but the next day, the sun came out, and a bunch of us walked into this perfect little village, and I fell in love. The first day, I was Luke Skywalker, hanging upside down in a cave. But after a few days, I was ready to move to Lillehammer.

It was the perfect Olympics. I did 10 of them in all, and four were Winters. But none were better than Lillehammer (I give Sydney a tie).

These were the days before the Internet, and you felt as if everyone was reading what you wrote. So many stories seemed important. There was Nancy and Tonya. There was Dan Jansen. There was Bonnie Blair. There was the Jamaican bobsled team.

And there was me and a notebook, sliding across the ice.

Another write I know arrived in a grouchy mood, too. He ripped the mountains for not being tall enough. Really. Maybe they seemed higher to me because I was stalling in a Chalet up on one. It took 45 minutes on the bus to get to the media center, and from there, you had to take another bus to your venue. Once, I saw a moose struggling to get through a snowbank; I thought it was a metaphor for me struggling through the journey.

There was a nearby field, where spectators built igloos and pitched tents and formed a makeshift village. I did a story, and the locals were terrific. Some guy offered me some of his food. "What is it?" I asked. The guy said, "It tastes like dead men in a tin." Uh, no thanks.

And, of course, there was Tonya and Nancy. There has never been another story like this one. There has never been a more heavily attended practice than the day they were on the ice together. (Figure skaters are judged on their practices, too, which I found remarkable. They have their dinner-mint outfits and everything).

When Tonya finally arrived, she held a press conference, still maintaining her innocence despite those insisting she had been the mastermind of the Gillooly Gang. The public relations agent pled for the media to be respectful. Hah. The first question, from Jere Longman of the New York Times: "Tonya, you lied to us about knowing about the attack, you lied to us about your smoking. Why should we believe a word. you're saying now?"

And off we went.

Winter Olympics aren't as heavily competed as the summer. There were days to write other things. The local McDonald's served Lutefisk (a fish). There was an ice hockey rink that had been blasted out of a mountain. I interviewed someone whose home had been ruined by the vibrations. The elderly woman who lived there didn't speak English, but she kept interrupting the translator by yelling "Boom! Boom! Boom!" I watched Cheers in Norwegian. A worker from the USOC gave me a ride up the mountain one night, and we stopped three-fourths of the way up the hill to watch the Aurora Borealis.

One night, I came in at 3:15. I went to the bathroom and was removing my contact lenses (I wore them in those days) with the bathroom door open. Chuck Nevius from San Francisco was a flatmate, and he walked out and grunted and went to the adjoining bathroom.

I finished and went to my room. A few minutes later, I heard the front door open and close. I wondered what Chuck was covering; some writers were traveling to the North Pole, some to Oslo). I laid down. A few minutes later, I heard the door open and close again.

The next morning, at breakfast, I saw Chuck. I asked where he had gone, and he grinned sheepishly. When I came in, he looked at his watch -- a Mavodo, without numbers -- and thought it was 9:15 in the morning (it didn't get light early). He got up and dressed and left for the ski jump. It was only halfway down the road that he realized the hour.

This being the Olympics, everyone was laughing. They were telling the story of the wacky American who went all the way to the ski jump before he realized the tim). Hey, we embellish.

I was there for Tonya's broken bootlace. I was there for the tears. I was there for the drama.

I was riding with another journalist one night after figure skating, and his rental car was covered in snow. It wouldn't start. So in the middle of the night, we got a cab back to Lillehammer, a good 45 minute ride. Halfway there, my companion said he didn't have any money. So I was counting mine when the cabbie slowed, as if to let us off in the middle of the night on a frozen country road. I later joked that we would have had to kill him and eat him.

Dan Jansen's victory -- finally -- was moving. Upon winning -- finally -- he pointed to the heavens to salute his late sister. It was as dramatic a moment as the Olympics ever saw.

I went to a press conference by the Jamaican bobsled team to find out the movie was fantasy. There was no guy holding an egg. There was no ex-Olympic medalists who had put on 900 pounds (John Candy). I am still disappointed.

There was the press conference, too, with Bjorn Daehli, a famed skater from Norway. His brother had been lost in an avalanche earlier in the winter. A reporter I know asked about it, and the entire room gasped. The next day, the writer was on the front page with others castigating him for his rudeness of asking. You aren't supposed to ask questions at a press conference? Really?

There wasn't a lot of time for off-hours activities, but there was a bar called Police 90 that most writers found. I'm not a drinker, so I was out of place, but I was there one night when the bartender -- a Uri Geller sort -- ostensibly was bending things with his mind. I suspected some sort of trick, but he bent keys, and he bent a spoon (I still have it).

It was a Karaoke bar, and Tim Sullivan, a friend of mine, announced he was gong to sing Danny Boy. You might know the story. I said no, that it was a hymn of my late mother, who was Irish. I couldn't take it. He waited, and he sang, and I'm told he was wonderful.'

A few months later, Tim saw a PBS special on the song. He taped it and mailed it to me. I was so choked up I couldn't speak. That led me to Dallas, and to my late mother's grave, and to fashioning a headstone with the Danny Boy lyrics.

I remember. Every time I eat Brussel sprouts -- the ever-present side dish -- I remember. Every time I see snow. Every time I see a mention of Tonya -- who once said it was beneath her dignity to box against a transvestite. The promoter replied "what dignity?" -- I remember.

It was the best. If they asked me, I'd move every Winter Olympics to Lillehammer. In the beginning, I saw snow; in the end, I saw heart. Now, a quarter of a century later, that's still what the Olympics mean to me.

You know, I think I'll have Dead Men in a Tin for lunch.

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