Winter Olympics give me a chill

February 2, 2014 

Back in the winter of 1968, I didn't really have the flu.

And I'm pretty sure the other three guys in the infirmary at the old St. Henry's Seminary on West Main Street weren't too sick either. But Peggy Fleming was skating for the gold at Grenoble, France. And, like all teenage boys in the winter of '68, we had huge crushes on Peggy Fleming.

Besides, all those big, mean Soviet and East German women were out to spoil it for the little slip of a girl from Pasadena, Calif.

I figured it was more important for us to root for Peggy than to go to Father Hurkes' Latin class that day. Forgive me, Father. Mea maxima culpa.

That was the year I became hooked on watching the Winter Olympics. That's why, for two weeks beginning next weekend, whenever the Winter Olympics are on TV, you'll find me in the luge position on the big easy chair -- flat on my back, feet stretched out in front, toes pointed straight up so I can see the TV screen right between them, arms at my sides. The only difference between me and U.S.A. Olympic luger Christopher Mazdzer, of Pittsfield, Mass., is that Mazdzer won't be going downhill with a plate of nacho-flavored Doritos on his chest.

Olympics watching has changed a lot in the last 46 years.

For one thing, Jim McKay is no longer with us. He died in 2008, after covering 12 Olympics. The dad-like announcer was as much a part of the Olympics as gold medals and big flames in my Olympics-watching heyday.

Without Jim, we might not have known the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. Jim seemed to know the American athletes like they were his own kids. Nobody rooted harder for them than Jim. He was everywhere. On the ski slopes in his ABC parka, at the pool in his ABC polo shirt and in the ice rink in his ABC tuxedo. I like that Peggy always called him "Mr. McKay."

Jim's toughest job was telling the world about the fate of the 11 Israeli athletes taken hostage by terrorists at the 1972 Munich Olympics. "They're all gone," he said simply. With a tear in his voice.

What was Jim's secret?

"Arthur Godfrey (ask your parents, if you don't know who that is) once told me, 'You're talking to one camera and one person.' So I always talk to my wife, Margaret."

I like Bob Costas just fine as an Olympic broadcaster. He is knowledgable, interested in the athletes and their sports, and has a nice, laid back style. Now, maybe if he'd try just talking to Margaret. ...

The Winter Olympic sports are different now, too. In 1968, there were no triple toe loops in ice skating. Triple jumps hadn't been invented yet. Now there are quadruples. I'm afraid that U.S. skater Gracie Gold will jump up and never come down.

In 1968, there were no pro athletes around (if you don't count the Soviets and East Germans). You had the feeling that the U.S. hockey players were guys just like you and me who just applied themselves. Nothing takes the shine off a gold medal as much as knowing that the athlete could buy a gross of them with his NHL paycheck.

The biggest difference, though, is it's no longer the good guys vs. the bad guys.

Us against them.

U.S.A. vs. U.S.S.R.

Rocky and Bullwinkle vs. Boris and Natasha.

This first hit me several Olympics ago when I was rooting for the 1980 upstart U.S.A. hockey team. The camera panned to an East German player with "Kuhl" on the back of his jersey. I didn't want him to win. But I wanted him to score a goal. I wondered if he had the Kuhl nose and eyebrows.

I found myself rooting for a skier from Cyprus because an "Up Close and Personal" segment showed him dancing with his little old grandma who has never seen snow but was so proud of the big lug.

In the '90s, I rooted for Germany's Georg Hackl because they showed him working so hard on his luge sled in the workshop of his home. And he liked to quaff a dark beer now and then. Hackle had been dubbed "Speeding Sausage" for the way he squeezed his stocky frame into a tight blue luge suit. I'm surprised Oscar Mayer never gave him a big endorsement contract.

Rosy-cheeked Russian ice skater Irina Slutskaya seemed like a nice girl, too. The 27-year-old silver medalist at Salt Lake City in 2002 missed most of the 2003 and 2004 seasons because of heart and vascular problems. Through it all, she had to deal with her mother's kidney failure. Wasn't it only Americans who overcame odds like that to win gold?

This year I'll be rooting for the great U.S.A. athletes. Like Bode Miller, the skier with hippie parents who puts having fun and skiing like a madman above winning. He won gold in 2010 and will be in his fifth Olympics this year. Some call the guy from Carrabassett Valley, Maine, the American Cowboy. I prefer Rodeo Bodeo.

And you may have been inspired by knockout snowboarder Lindsey Jacobellis in some of those CBS Sports apparel ads. That may not be as inspiring as overcoming heart and vascular problems, but it's pretty cool.

I can't wait to catch all the action.

Is it a little warm in here? I think I'm coming down with the two-week flu.

Just don't tell my boss.

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