This has been the week, every four years since 1994, that I traditionally start packing for the Winter Olympics.
Except this week, instead of Korea, I’m packing for Europe.
See, I’ve never been to Spain, but I’ve been to Lillehammer.
It is my sincere hope the sober half of me saddened by missing out on Pyeongchang will soon be consoled by the drunken half of me situated in San Sebastian.
Looking back, which is what I mainly do now, covering Alpine Skiing for the L.A. Times might have been the greatest assignment ever handed down to any sports writer.
I’ll never forget that call back in 1993. I was playing with the kids in the street when I was summoned to the phone.
On the other end was Times’ sports editor Bill Dwyre, the voice of God, about to inform me my life was going to get colder. Bob Lochner, the inside editor who had been handling the Olympic ski beat, was retiring.
Dwyre told me to go buy some ear muffs because he had me booked on a toboggan for the 1994 Lillehammer Games.
I had not skied since college but next thing I knew I was on a plane for Colorado to cover a World Cup race at Steamboat Springs, a training run to get me ready for the real thing in Norway.
I knew zilch about how to cover a ski race and showed up petrified in the finish area “corral” with a notebook and pen.
Mike Clark, the chain-smoking ski beat man for the Associated Press, looked at me like the rookie I was and calmly handed me a No. 2 pencil. Pens, he said, freeze up in the cold.
I had a lot to learn, but I learned it.
The first Olympic ski race I ever covered was Tommy Moe’s stunning gold medal win in the downhill. It was below zero as we stood, on frozen ice, with frozen feet, in frozen Norway, waiting for Moe to come through our media zone.
I knew it was time to go inside when the lips of David Leon Moore, my ski-writing friend for USA Today, started to turn blue. He still suffers residual frostbite, in some of his fingers, from that day.
Oh, my god, what had I walked into?
For me, a kid from sun-burned Orange County, alpine skiing was a world of make believe, foreign languages, Swiss timing, cookie-cutter chalets, Alberto Tomba, wild crashes and world-class apres-ski parties. All I knew was what I saw on Wide World Of Sports.
It was as far away from my comfort zone as you could get—exactly what everyone should do, kicking and screaming, at least once in a life.
Face what scares you and attack fear the way Picabo Street did the front side of a mountain.
I couldn’t believe some of the things Bode Miller said, but was more amazed at the things he did when buckled in his boots. I still cannot fathom the courage, or stupidity, it takes to hurl one’s body down a slippery sheet of ice.
I have covered football, a very dangerous sport, for most of my career, yet my awe and respect for “Downhill Racer” will never be topped.
Hermann Maier…what in the name of Lufthansa were you thinking?
But it’s over now, arctic blue.
I covered six straight Winter Games—Lillehammer, Nagano, Salt Lake City, Turin, Vancouver, Sochi—and cherish all those hypothermia memories.
True story: At the 2010 Games, we were invited to a fancy party in Whistler to promote a future World Championship event at Vail.
An elderly man named “George” greeted us at the lodge door. He was wearing ski-suit suspenders and took our coats and ushered us in for appetizers. George kept asking us if we needed more chips. We thought he was the hired help.
“George, could we get some more salsa over here?”
There was a soccer game playing on one of the televisions. One of the teams involved was Liverpool.
We asked George what interest he had in the game.
“I own Liverpool,” he calmly said.
Oh. I stepped back and did a Google search on my Blackberry to find out the George who was serving us was billionaire (or nearly billion) George Gillett.
The logistics of covering a Winter Olympics were sometimes insane and the media centers were virtual incubators for viral infections and tuberculosis.
I probably knew “it” was over for me, four years ago, at the Sochi Games in Russia. It was a long, hard, sick-filled trip and I was discouraged the games were sent there in the first place.
At the 2006 Games in Italy, I spent many a night suckling up to roasted pig at the Austria House in Sestriere, in my erstwhile effort to promote Salzburg’s bid for the 2014 Winter Games.
I wonder now if Vlad Putin rigged that election. Naaaah.
On top of that, the bids 2018 and 2022 were awarded to Korea and China.
What happened to Salzburg?
My father was nearly killed in Korea, 65 years ago, by the Chinese, so this seemed a good jumping-off point. More than the food, or the racing, or the travel, or the cultures, or the bronchitis, I’ll miss most my ski-writing comrades.
Every four years, we formed a tight-knit group, protecting and cajoling each other like play-friend war correspondents (minus the danger).
I’m not the only writer who has taken the buyout since the Sochi sellout. I heard recently there are only three of “us” left going to Korea. So, from a bar in Spain, I plan to raise a toast to Tim Layden (Sports Illustrated), Bill Pennington (New York Times) and Barry Svrlurga (Washington Post)—three of the best journalists\colleagues in the business.
Safe travels to all of you—and to me. I’ll be watching Lindsey Vonn and Mikaela Shiffrin from some Hemingway haunt.
The same Winter Olympic rules apply: dress in layers, don’t eat yellow snow and never forget your hand warmers back in the media hut.
One other thing: Always keep your (pencil) tips up. Pens freeze in the cold.
I miss you guys already…don’t forget to write.