Don't believe the hype

It's always fun to watch a media darling lose, but Tuesday's bobsled upset offered up a tale for the ages.

By King Kaufman
Published February 20, 2002 8:00PM (EST)

I enjoy it when an athlete who's been hyped to the heavens flops. I realize this makes me an evil person. I'm comfortable with that. I am, in fact, luxuriating with that.

It's particularly fun when someone who's a shoo-in loses to someone who wasn't even given a chance, and was therefore -- even if they had a photogenic disease of some sort -- denied a chance to wander around in slow motion while uttering voice-over banalities for a "Chevrolet Olympic Moment" on NBC. They'll get this chance as defending champs, of course, if they stick around until the next Olympics.

Every Olympics is a good opportunity for this pastime, but Tuesday was unusually good, with aerial skier Eric Bergoust and, especially, the United States' top women's two-man bobsled team, Jean Racine and Gea Johnson, losing spectacularly.

Bergoust, an aerial skier, is the star of a commercial that's been in heavy rotation throughout the Olympics. The defending gold medalist in freestyle aerials, he jumped last on Tuesday. The gold was within his reach, but it would take a great jump. He went for it, as they say in his sport, but he fell on his landing and finished last. "I knew it was going to take a huge score to win, and I was going for first or last today, and I got last," he said with a little laugh.

But it was Racine and Johnson who were the most entertaining, because not only were they, or at least Racine, among the most hyped athletes, they were also the stars of the Games' best drama. And while their opera was playing itself out they were beaten by the "other" American team, Jill Bakken and Vonetta Flowers. Politically correct but semantically challenged sports reporters immediately began shortchanging Flowers by saying that she was the first African-American to ever win a gold medal at the Winter Olympics. She's more than that. She's the first black person to win gold in the Winter Games, which is not quite the same thing.

Given no chance to win, Bakken and Flowers turned in a time of one minute, 37.76 seconds for their two races, .3 seconds faster than Germans Sandra Prokoff and Ulrike Holzner, an eternity in this strange sport, where the difference between victory and non-contention is ridiculously small. Racine and Johnson, for example, looked suicidal after their first run, because they were a half second behind, and they knew there was no way to catch up. They finished fifth, .97 seconds -- less than 1 percent -- slower than the winners. By way of comparison, a football team that loses 38-37 has lost by 2.6 percent.

Where is Tolstoy when you need him to tell the story of Jean Racine?

Racine and her longtime teammate and best friend, Jen Davidson, a photogenic pair, were among the most hyped of U.S. athletes. They made commercials. They were as close as you can get to stardom when you're a Winter Olympics athlete who's never won a medal and isn't a figure skater and the Olympics haven't started yet.

But they'd been struggling on the World Cup circuit and in December Racine fired Davidson in favor of Johnson, a former collegiate heptathlon champ. The friendship was wrecked. Davidson complained to the U.S. Olympic Committee and bobsled federation, though she eventually withdrew the grievances.

Racine was portrayed as a villain, a ruthless harridan who would betray her best friend for a shiny piece of metal, mostly by people who would have done the same thing. And then, a few days before the event, Johnson pulled her hamstring. The irony! There was talk, briefly, that Davidson might replace her, though not by Racine, and anyway Davidson wasn't eligible.

In the end Johnson raced, and as she pushed the sled in the team's first run, she felt her injured hamstring tear. She rode down the course in agony, rode a truck back to the top and, with no alternative, pushed again for the futile second run. Johnson's performance may have been the greatest display of grit the Salt Lake Games will see, this Olympics' version of Derek Richmond, the British runner who tore his hamstring in a 400-meter semifinal in 1992 but, in one of the Barcelona Games' unforgettable moments, hobbled to the finish, aided by his father, who'd jumped onto the track from the stands. Because the nature of the event makes such a dramatic scene impossible, the world will little note nor long remember Johnson's heroism.

Racine said the right things at a post-event press conference. She praised Johnson and said, "America was on the podium today, and that was the goal. We didn't win, but America did." She cried. She'd made her choices, done what she'd had to do, burned bridges, and it hadn't worked out.

And the winners of her event, the gushing, dazed Bakken and Flowers, unable to begin to articulate the awe and shock and happiness they were feeling -- the winners were Americans. They were not going to disappear into some distant, Nordic celebrity. They were going to be everywhere for a while. Letterman, Leno, who knows where. You don't pull off a huge upset in the Olympics, and you don't become the first black person to do anything in this day and age when we should be long past such firsts, without a lot of people wanting to talk to you.

Jean Racine can do nothing but watch it unfold. She is a tragic figure of the first order, the stuff of great literature. If you're betting on who in this tale will have a movie made about them, you might put your money on Flowers. But they should make it about Racine.

Two other indelible moments from Tuesday's games:

  • Sasha Cohen, the 17-year-old American figure skater, blithely waving into the TV camera and saying hi to her friends and teachers and anyone else she can think of and ignoring the scores for her short program as they're posted. I don't know much about figure skating but I know from star power, and if this kid can skate at all -- she's in third place after the short program -- she's an America's Sweetheart in waiting.

  • Speed skater Derek Parra, a new dad and a 5-foot-4 underdog, in tears, jumping up and down with joy on the medals stand, then singing along to the national anthem after receiving the gold medal for the 1,500 meters, which he won by setting a world record. Top of the world, ma. Lumps in throats, coast to coast. Fun to watch.

  • King Kaufman

    King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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