Three-Minute History Lesson

Headless Sledmen and Blushing Commies: An Olympics Guide for the Rest of Us

January 22, 2010 Published in the February 2010 issue of Seattle Met

A SEATTLE TIMES sports columnist who’s covered the Winter Games for 12 years, Ron C. Judd has a head full of slip-sliding stats and feats of Olympic glory. And now he’s poured that knowledge into The Winter Olympics: An Insider’s Guide to the Legends, the Lore, and the Games. At the risk of turning you into an obsessive TV-side encyclopedia come Games time (February 12–28) here are a few nuggets gleaned from Judd’s book.

Ski jumping looks death-defying, really isn’t. Ski jumpers leap from high ramps and fly more than 450 feet through the air, but the truth is that once they’re launched, they’re rarely more than about 10 feet off the ground. They follow the contours of the slope, which creates an optical illusion, and a grand one at that.

Old Man Winter doesn’t like the Winter Games. Ever since the second Winter Games at St. Moritz in 1928, the Olympics have been cursed by unseasonably warm weather in places that usually don’t get unseasonably warm weather. In ’28, above-freezing temps washed out the 10,000-meter speed skating race and a third of the racers in the 50k cross-country race gave up in disgust. Other Games suffering from slush, mud, and lack of snow include Lake Placid (1932), where bobsled races had to be finished after the closing ceremony; Cortina d’ Ampezzo (1956); Innsbruck (1964 and 1976); and Calgary (1988).

Norwegians are good sports. In 1974 a former Norwegian athlete and an Olympic historian discovered a math error in the tabulation of the 1924 Chamonix Winter Games ski-jumping scores that gave a bronze medal to their countryman, legendary leaper Thorleif Haug. They reported the error to the International Olympic Committee, which reversed the medal standings and awarded the bronze to America’s Anders Haugen, who for 50 years thought he had finished fourth. Haugen, then 85, finally received the medal and remains America’s only ski-jump medalist.

American cross-country skiers get no respect. To date, only one American, Vermont’s Bill Koch, has ever won a medal in cross-country skiing. In today’s media-saturated environment, it seems unthinkable, but when the 24-year-old Koch made history at the 1976 Innsbruck Games, not a single U.S. journalist–for either print, television, or radio–was on hand to witness the event. Embarrassed photographers had to ask him to put his skis back on and pose for photos later in the day.

Winter sports can kill you. In a bobsled run in 1966 near Lake Placid, New York, world champion Italian driver Sergio Zardini was decapitated. At the 1964 Innsbruck Games, an Australian alpine skier and British luge racer were killed during training runs.

Vinko Bogataj needed an agent. Slovenian ski jumper Vinko Bogataj made the crumpling 1970 flop off a ski-jump ramp, immortalized for decades on ABC’s Wide World of Sports. For most of those years, Bogataj, a factory worker who did not suffer serious injuries in the crash, lived behind the Iron Curtain and had no clue that he was a global symbol for screwing the pooch in front of the entire world.

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