Final musings on the start of the Winter Olympics …

   I’ll be watching the Opening Ceremonies of the 2010 Winter Olympics tomorrow night, but I can’t shake the suspicion that the conventional wisdom about how to promote amateur sports is woefully lacking. And just to be clear, I don’t think of college football or basketball as amateur sports. Do you?
   Even as I write this, I hope that America’s greatest hope on the mountains in Vancouver, Alpine skier Lindsey Vonn, isn’t yet another tragic victim of the infamous Sports Illustrated Curse. Having appeared on the SI cover of the Olympic Preview issue, an injury from a week or so ago has put her status in question just as the Games are set to begin.

   I always feel like the powers-that-be simply redirect the vast star-making machinery that would traditionally works just fine with professional athletes and hope that it delivers with amateurs who show up on the radar on a quadrennial basis. That’s OK when an athlete like Eric Heiden comes along, but I think they need to rethink their broader strategy when it comes to hyping mere mortals.

   I have great sympathy for someone like Vonn, who reportedly refused to get a an X-ray of the contusion on her right shin, presumably because a determination that the bone was fractured would take the determination of her 2010 hopes to a different level.

   While I proclaim empathy, I don’t think any of us avowed couch potatoes can truly understand what it would be like to train for something 40 or more hours a week for so many years only to have the key opportunity to compete on the grandest stage cruelly snatched away by fate – or the editors of Sports Illustrated – if you’re given to embrace superstition.

   A final note about Eric Heiden, the star of the 1980 Games in Lake Placid who won a record five gold medals. I was on hand in Lake Placid for his sixth and final press conference (one for each medal won, and one at the beginning of the games) and I was in awe of the scale and silliness of it.
   With literally hundreds of reporters seated in the auditorium of Lake Placid High School, where the speed skating track had been created on the school’s track and field oval directly in front of the school, Heiden dutifully handled one inane question after another.

   In fairness to the assembled fourth-estaters, there wasn’t much left to ask somebody who had been center stage for a half-dozen press conferences in a two-week span. What I did think was interesting was that while Heiden was being feted for winning gold medal No. 5 in a world record time at 10,000 meters, a Russian guy was still out on the track circling the oval. That seemed kind of cheeky and dismissive of the Ruskie’s chances, but such was the prevailing cold war sentiment that chilly February in the Adirondacks.

   Oh, and a final note. My grandmother, gone now from this earthly plane for 25 years or so, watched every last minute of the 1980 Winter Olympics, right down to the interminable rolling of the credits from ABC’s telecast. Somewhere along the way, the name “Thomas S. O’Connell” flashed by, and she was duly delighted.

   I think we told her that it wasn’t me (O’Connell is a pretty common Irish surname), but I don’t think she believed it. And I don’t think I expended that much effort to disabuse her of the notion; I was, after all, the guy who used to tell my friends back in 1959 that Giants infielder Danny O’Connell was my uncle.

   Remember my motto: It’s not a lie if you really, truly believe it.

   Let the Games begin!

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