Originally created 01/18/06

Athletes are in search of Olympic glory



The Winter Olympics are more than three weeks away, so there's no reason to panic if you still can't tell a skeleton from a slalom, or a triple lutz from a triple axel.

Besides, the people at NBC will soon be doing their best to educate everyone why it matters and why you should care.

Don't know what a Salchow is? Don't have a cow, because the peacock network will devote 416 hours over 17 days to explain the intricacies of sports most Americans have no clue about.

Here's a primer, though, for those wanting a headstart on the only thing that really matters back home about the Turin games - how many medals the skaters, skiers, boarders and, yes, even curlers, from the United States will win.

And heads are a good place to begin because, right now, the prospects of a big medal haul for the U.S. team seem to be hairier than the top of Zach Lund's head.

Lund, in case you missed it, is a skeleton racer, one of a rare breed of thrill seekers who love nothing better than to strap themselves on top of a sled, point it down a mountain, and hold on for dear life.

He's pretty good at it, too. So good, in fact, that Lund was leading the World Cup rankings at the beginning of the year and was a medal favorite in Turin.

He's apparently not so fearless, though, when it comes to appearing in public without his helmet. You see, Lund is follicly challenged and, like many men, takes a treatment supposed to stave off baldness.

You can't blame Lund for trying to save his hair at the tender age of 26. Chicks may dig guys who go fast, but they're not usually so fond of guys who are going prematurely bald.

Unfortunately, the primary ingredient in his Propecia is the same thing used to hide some performance-enhancing drugs from detection in urine tests. Busted for a bad hair day, he now faces a hearing that could keep him from Turin.

Lund isn't the only one who may end up getting a refund on his airfare to Italy. The U.S. managed to qualify only one female slider, and some sliders claim there are some, er, skeletons on the closet of U.S. coach Tim Nardiello, too.

Nardiello is under suspension while the U.S. Olympic Committee decides whether to let him go to Turn after several female sliders claimed he harassed them sexually. He professes his innocence, but the issue is such a sensitive one that it's hard to believe Nardiello will be allowed to go to Turin.

From head to groin, there are question marks everywhere.

Michelle Kwan will likely be competing in her third Olympics, despite a groin pull that kept her out of the U.S. Championships over the weekend and questions over whether she can compete for a medal under new figure skating judging rules.

Kwan was given a spot on the team only after the people who run U.S. figure skating met in a secret session worthy of a papal election to debate whether she deserved selection. When a puff of white smoke came out of a St. Louis arena, they had helped protect NBC's investment by putting the only real skating star America knows on the team.

Figure skating may be the most popular Winter Olympics event on American television, but viewers are going to have to get used to watching a lot of Russian skaters on the medal podium. U.S. chances for medals are on such thin ice that it took an act of Congress - literally - to make Canada's Tanith Belbin an American citizen in time so she and partner Ben Agosto would have a chance to win something.

That would, of course, be in the always hotly anticipated ice dancing competition.

Working our way back up to the head, everyone keeps trying to get inside the one belonging to Bode Miller.

He skis, he crashes, he talks trash. And, in between, he just might have a beer or two.

Miller is America's best hope for a handful of medals, a daredevil who skis - and lives - on the edge, and a potential medalist in five different events. And he's the face of this Olympic team, on the cover of both Time and Newsweek magazines this week and the subject of an infamous "60 Minutes" interview last week.

But Miller is also a free spirit and a free thinker, whose idea of a great Olympics would be to ski his best and not win any medals at all. How he's going to explain that to Nike, which is readying a huge advertising blitz built around him and is paying him millions to win gold, should be interesting.

Just do it? Well, maybe, but first explain what my motivation should be.

"The reasons I'm going (to Turin) are really impure," Miller said in the Newsweek article, "and that definitely bothers me."

That should also bother the people whose livelihoods depend on the success of the U.S. team in Turin. Miller figures to play a big part in whether the United States comes closer to the record 34 medals it won in Salt Lake City or the mere 13 it gathered four years earlier in Nagano, Japan.

So drink and ski all you want, Bode.

Just don't forget to bring some medals home, too. The way things are looking, they'll be sorely needed.