Flight of the wonder boy

If ski jump hero Simon Ammann never grows up, we won't mind.

By Gary Kamiya
Published February 14, 2002 2:27PM (EST)

Wednesday was a pretty rocking day in the land of high-speed, low-friction sports, as observed from my low-speed, high-friction Barcalounger. World records, melodrama, serious injury, ludicrous recoveries from impossible mistakes, more bizarre skating allegations, a half-Japanese blur on the ice and, above all, a Swiss kid who didn't know any better flying into history -- all in all, it was a fine and entertaining three and a half hours.

I could get used to this TV-watching thing. It's great to be at the games, choosing where you actually want your eyes to go and all that, but the logistics are a bitch. If you were actually in Salt Lake, you'd have to have a wayback machine, a helicopter, a thousand bucks' worth of tickets and the world's best binoculars to see the show NBC served up -- and even then, there's no guarantee that Bombay Sapphire would be available at most venues. In fact, judging from the complete absence of those "colorful roisterers in the local taverns" features that the networks have usually rolled out by now, choices in that critical area must be extremely limited -- which is why there are probably more hip flasks in Salt Lake City right now than have ever been collected in one place in the history of the world. Braying Swedes do not bray on enthusiasm alone.

The evening kicked off with women's 500 meter speed skating, featuring what the commentators called the biggest lock of the Games, Canadian Catriona LeMay Doan. Doan is the Marion Jones of the short ice, basically unbeatable -- she tends to win whatever she enters, she won gold in Nagano -- and she breezed through the first of her two runs at the top of the pack. There is something oddly inspiring about watching someone who is just plain better than anyone else, like Michael Johnson or the great hurdler Edwin Moses. It arouses an atavistic, Beowulfian, you-swing-the-baddest-broadsword-so-hail-to-you kind of reverence. Competition is democratic, but it's tense -- it's good to relax with a little divine right of kings from time to time. She'll try to ascend the throne again Thursday.

Then came the men's combined, the downhill-and-slalom contest that determines the best all-around skier in the world. The story line was the battle between two likable, slightly grizzled Norwegian comrades who have dominated the sport for years, Lasse Kjus and Kjetil Andre Aamodt, vs. an upstart American, Bode Miller -- with a creaking, old-as-Methusaleh, 35-year-old Swiss guy named Accola thrown in to preserve the pathetic, the-older-I-get-the-faster-I-was delusions of middle-aged male spectators. The Norwegians stormed through their usual smooth downhill runs, but that apparently isn't how Miller does business. He got really gnarly really fast.

It happened toward the bottom of the run. Coming out of a turn Miller shifted too far back on his skis, his weight pulling him backward and to the side, and suddenly, shockingly, he was down, his left hip scraping along the ground, his left ski kicking out at a crazy angle that had compound fracture written all over it and his entire weight carried by the edge of his right ski -- all of this as he careened along at merging-on-the-freeway speed. But he somehow bounced back up, held his line -- I don't know from skiing, but I know a little about bike riding, and there's something similiar about the way forward motion is your friend when you screw up -- got his skis back together and made it across the finish. At the bottom he made the fist-pounding-on-chest gesture that universally denotes "pass me my brown pants." It was the most unbelievable recovery I've ever seen.

But it looked like that ridiculous Keystone Kops-like escape was going to be for naught when Miller -- a slalom specialist -- screwed up his first slalom run, leaving him still an eternal two and a half seconds behind. His self-critique after the first run was lucid and brusque in that cool way jocks sometimes have of dispassionately analyzing their screwups, and he didn't seem to hold out much hope that he was going to get on the podium. But then he just nailed the second slalom -- NBC's helpful high-tech "ghost" superimposition, where you can see two skiers' runs overlaid on each other, clearly showed how his superaggressive line from gate to gate shaved big time off the lead. It was a monster run, everyone except Aamodt faltered and in a stirring comeback Miller ended up taking the silver to Aamodt's gold, losing by a quarter of a second. The great Aamodt, with six alpine golds, had moved into rarefied Olympic territory -- and Miller had carved himself out a nice little memory-niche, too, as the Silver Houdini of the Salt Lake City Combined.

Then came the touted short-track skating debut of Apolo Anton Ohno, former bad boy raised by his Japanese-born single dad, possessor of a chin soul patch, 19-year-old recipient of Gen X cutie-pie hype who is this year's American multimedal hope. One of those fireside features narrated by Jim McKay tried to pump up Ohno as someone who missed being a reprobate by a hair -- which would have been a more compelling story if they had given any examples of the supposedly dissolute life he was tempted by. Did some al-Qaida supporter (Johnny Mosely?) offer him a joint? We don't know. All we heard -- aside from the fact that he was a latchkey kid who is close to his dad -- was the usual I-hit-bottom-after-I-finished-last tale, followed by Sonny Rollins-style woodshedding in a remote cabin to get his chops back, followed by a triumphant return to competition.

McKay also made an attempt to present Ohno as wise beyond his years. That may be true, but the young man's gnomic utterances -- that life is "a journey" and "a big circle" -- might reflect not Buddhist-tinged wisdom so much as the fact that he has been skating around in circles for years.

Ohno has also been dogged by a controversy that doesn't appear to have been entirely resolved. He was accused of racing improperly in the Olympic trials to get a buddy on the team; the accusations were dropped rather quickly, for reasons that as presented by NBC were somewhat unclear.

Short track, one of many events I missed seeing at Nagano, is mind-blowing -- it's fast as lightning and as volatile as nitroglycerine. Like motorcycle racers, the skaters touch their hands delicately to the track as they negotiate the curves. But it goes from lyrical to train wreck in the blink of an eye. Passing is where it gets hairy. The tolerances are just too small. It's all about bursts -- you don't win by gradually wearing your opponent down, as in track, but by cheetah-ing around his ass before he has time to react. It's nerve-wracking: Every time somebody passes, you see Mary Decker Slaney colliding with Zola Budd and going down in a heap, except the runners have razor blades on their feet. Cut in too soon and you or your opponent go down in flames and are hurled by massive centrifugal force to the padded wall around the track, where bad things happen to your body.

That did in fact happen, but not right away. First came the qualifying heats of the 1,000 meters: The first two of four went through. Ohno finished second behind a really fast Korean: There was a split-second in the last lap when Ohno thought about shooting past him, but it would have been too risky and there was nothing to gain except the psychological edge of winning. But he was thinking about it.

Then came the qualifying race for the 5,000-meter relay. Relay in short track is wild and not to be missed. It's confusing at first if you haven't seen it before. While the four actual racers circle the short oval track, the next four skaters circle inside the track, getting into position to receive the handoff -- a touch, then a push that actually propels them as they start. The Koreans were battling with the Americans when their skater suddenly lost it and went careening into the wall -- heroically managing to touch the hand of his teammate before suffering what we later learned was a lower back injury.

The Koreans, a formidable contender, were out and so a bizarre restart took place, three teams contending for two spots. The U.S. sewed up its spot easily, along with Italy, and will battle China, Italy and Canada for the medals. There was one interesting moment when Ohno apparently decided to strut his stuff: He shifted for a few seconds into a gear that nobody else on the track seemed to have. The crowd roared, and suddenly you understood why people think he could win four golds.

But the highlight of the evening was the 120-meter ski jumping contest -- the battle of the big hill. Simon Ammann, a 20-year-old stringbean of a Swiss kid who looks about 14 (with his horn-rim glasses and slightly wacky thin-lipped visage, he resembles a Helvetian Harry Potter, as Bob Costas was quick to observe), had shocked the jumping world by winning on the 90-meter hill. Ammann -- who suffered a serious fall and a concussion recently -- had never won anything, while his rivals -- including Adam Malysz, aka "the Polish Batman" (almost as bad a nickname as luge legend Georg Hackl's "White Sausage," which sounds like a locker-room NBA joke), and the Finn Matti Hautamaeki were seasoned veterans.

If you don't look closely at Ammann, you'd think you could shake him down for lunch money, which he would pull with trembling pink hands out of his little Swiss schoolboy satchel. But when you look more closely you see something else -- a boyish wildness, a pure, eccentric determination. And regardless of what he looks like, Ammann has it -- whatever the secret is that allows a ski jumper to fit his body into the air like a key in a lock, the key that opens distance.

I was privileged to see the great team finals competition at Nagano, one of the most memorable events of that Olympics, when the Japanese, jumping through a blizzard, came back to win before their ecstatic, weeping fans. TV doesn't capture ski jumping. It can't. You have to see it all, smell it, feel the scale in your bones to appreciate it. It's an awesome spectacle -- the huge curved ramp, weird and ominous with its Triumph-of-the-Will architecture, like a combination angel-making machine and deadly conveyor belt. The bracing thin air, the mountains. The jumper far above you, waiting at the top, the harrowing glide down the ramp and then the uncanny moment of release, the strange exquisite launching of a heavy man far out into the air.

Ammann was tied with the German Hannawald for first after the first jump -- 132.5 meters, 140.5 points. But any of the big guys could take the gold if they hit their second jumps. Hautamaukei put up a strong 125.5. Then Malysz took off as his countryman Lech Walesa cheered him on -- 128.0.

Ammann was next. He began his run down the ramp. He hit the air, his takeoff was clean, he was flat and still and quiet, and he sailed true like a paper plane thrown into the wind by a kid with the right touch, landing far down the hill. 133.0. The crowd went crazy.

There was one more jumper, Hannawald. He went a long way, but he touched the ground with his hand upon landing and was disqualified. Ammann was champion.

In victory, the kid became only the second jumper in history to win both ski-jumping events at the same Games. Interviewed soon afterward, he stammered wildly and exuberantly, his English all but lost in the crazy exultation of the moment, "I was so nervous ... Oh boy, it's incredible ..." he babbled on a little more and then, prodded by the interviewer to do that wacky scream again, he gave out the same yelp he had when he won the 90, a funny little gut-wrenching shriek that turned into an almost demented gasp of amazement.

One of the interesting things about the Olympics is the endless variety of morals you can draw from them. You can make them fables of perseverance, or tales of irredeemable loss. What story do you tell yourself about the American skater Todd Eldredge, who had failed at Nagano, who said in a feature Tuesday night, "I haven't done the Olympics right yet," a decent guy who had worked as hard as he could to prepare himself for this last chance -- and who, during his short program, fell twice? As Eldredge finished his program and acknowledged the applause, a series of marvelous and moving expressions crossed his face. First there was anguish, then a smile, then a kind of wonderment, then resolution -- the maturity of a man, assessing his loss and moving on. That is the moral I want to draw from his performance -- one that left his former teammate Kristi Yamaguchi, and no doubt many who loved and cared for him, in tears. But I also saw him later, waiting for his scores, and there was pain on his face. Is that Eldredge's truth? Or the wisdom? What is the truth? Do we even want it?

There are no answers to those questions. We look to the athletes at the Olympics in victory and defeat not to give us answers, but simply because they are human, because in their laughter and tears, their stoicism and rage and resignation and joy, we see ourselves, and perhaps see ourselves larger and deeper than we had imagined.

And so here is the story I tell myself about a Swiss kid named Simon Ammann: Once upon a time, a boy wanted to fly. And he did.

Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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