The Eagle has been grounded
Seven days before the opening ceremony and George Fitch already detects something missing from the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
The last time the world’s grandest sporting event touched down on Canadian soil -- at Calgary in 1988 -- Fitch assembled the Jamaican bobsled team, a hobbin’, bobbin’, T-shirt-sellin’ crew that became an overnight sensation and, in time, a Disney movie.
“People really liked us,” Fitch said. “They saw this was good, this was what the Games were all about.”
But maybe Calgary went a little too far in terms of Olympic oddity.
The Jamaicans were joined by characters such as “Eddie the Eagle” -- the klutzy British ski jumper -- and a Mexican cross-country racer who fell so far behind that worried officials gathered a search party.
Suffice to say, the International Olympic Committee was not amused.
Eager to protect the integrity of their brand, members enacted stricter qualifying standards. As IOC President Jacques Rogge recently explained: “The eagles don’t fly anymore.”
Competition is certainly tougher now, at least at the bottom end of the draw, but Fitch and others are left to wonder:
Have the Games lost some of their charm?
Vancouver will have its share of unusual or otherwise inspiring stories.
A black slalom racer from Ghana nicknamed the “Snow Leopard.” A Canadian cross-country skier who is legally blind. A 48-year-old Argentine in the youth-mad freestyle competition.
All have qualified under the so-called “Eddie the Eagle” rule. Simply making the national team is no longer enough -- they spent years proving themselves on the international circuit.
This significantly lessens the potential for desperate underdogs amid the sporting elite, what author David Wallechinsky calls the “everyman aspect.”
“People think, oh, here’s somebody I can really relate to,” said Wallechinsky, who co-wrote “The Complete Book of the Winter Olympics.” “Here’s somebody like me.”
The romantic notion traces back to Baron Pierre de Coubertin, father of the modern Olympics. He emphasized participation -- though not for women -- which occasionally left the door open for unqualified competitors.
It’s just that no one paid much attention to the hopeless and hapless until Calgary.
“I don’t think Eddie or the Jamaicans were part of anybody’s master plan,” said John Hoberman, a University of Texas professor who has written extensively about sport. “These things happen by accident.”
From the start, fans took to Michael Edwards -- aka “Eddie the Eagle” -- a cartoonish figure in Coke-bottle glasses hurtling through the air like Mr. Magoo with planks strapped to his feet.
Edwards regaled the media with tales of second-hand equipment and renting a cheap room in a mental hospital while training in Finland, all of it delivered in a thick, working-class British accent.
So why did officials get so upset?
Amid concerns for his safety were grumbles of another sort, resentment that a last-place finisher had upstaged the medal winners, receiving front-page coverage and flying to Los Angeles for a guest shot with Johnny Carson.
“I didn’t realize that I was going to become Eddie the Eagle and that I was going to become as big as I got in Calgary,” Edwards recently told the Canadian Press.
A similar tale unfolded at the sliding venue.
An American businessman with strong ties to Jamaica, Fitch had rounded up a handful of athletic soldiers and a helicopter pilot to serve as driver. He bought a sled, hired a coach and rushed them through scant months of training.
Between runs in Calgary, they hawked T-shirts, pins and a record, “Hobbin’ and A-Bobbin,” to recoup expenses. The public ate it up while -- again -- officials worried about novices flying down the track in a dangerous sport.
“The powers that be were trying to keep us out,” recalled Fitch, now the mayor of Warrenton, Va.
So many years later, he says people forget that his team performed reasonably well in the two-man event before deciding at the last moment to enter the four-man, where driver Dudley Stokes steered too high in a turn and flipped the sled.
“Then Disney makes a movie,” Fitch said, referring to the 1993 film “Cool Runnings.” “The crash is all anyone remembers.”
The Summer Games still allow member nations to enter a limited number of athletes who have not met IOC standards. Who can forget Eric “The Eel” Moussambani, the swimmer from Equatorial Guinea who flailed across the pool?
“The Winter Olympics are another story,” Wallechinsky said. “The equipment is more expensive, the training is more expensive.”
And the events can be more dangerous -- no one risks mortal injury while sprinting, however slowly, in the 100-meter dash.
The IOC recently cited quality of competition in rejecting an attempt to add women’s ski jumping to the program in Vancouver. Rogge said there simply weren’t enough skilled entrants.
“We didn’t want the medals to be watered down,” he explained.
Hoberman suggests that while performance is important, fans can grow bored of watching skier after skier come down the hill with similar, perfected technique. The professor sees value in a few oddballs.
“It’s like the NFL and dancing in the end zone,” he said. “In a certain sense, the grind of competition benefits from episodes of comic relief.”
Ultimately, the IOC must weigh De Coubertin’s spirit of inclusion against an Olympic motto -- Citius, Altius, Fortius -- that calls for ever faster, higher, stronger performances.
From Fitch’s perspective, the balance should tip toward “opening up sports,” he said. “It’s about allowing people to participate.”
And, somewhere amid the competitive grind, having a few laughs.