Winter Olympics: Not that cool


THE PROBLEM with criticizing the Winter Olympics is that you risk being thought of as some hayseed who just fell off the turnip truck and doesn't have the sophistication to appreciate the intricacies of, say, the luge.

Which might well be true. I don't deny that patches of straw fall from my hair now and then, or that I occasionally wrestle the urge to pop a chaw of tobacco in my mouth and take in a stock car race.

Still, that alone can't be responsible for the odd feeling of disinterest that descends over me each time I see a CBS promo for the upcoming Winter Olympics in Albertville, France.

The first thing the promos bring to mind is the dreary sport of speed-skating, armies of bland-faced men and women stooped over like 120-year-old Cossack villagers, arms swinging goofily (if there is such a word), massive thighs straining under brightly colored Lycra, their breath forming great clouds of steam above the skating oval as they race around and around and around and . . . huh? Oh, uh, sorry. Must have dozed off for a minute.

Then there is the biathlon, that curious discipline where you ski for a while and then you . . . I think this is right . . . stop and fire a rifle. The biathlon is said to have begun as a means of survival for Nordic hunters, although if there is a cold-weather animal capable of keeping up with a fully grown adult on skis, you probably need more than a rifle to stop it. Maybe something along the lines of a howitzer.

Of course, the reason so many Americans find these sports strange is that most of us didn't grow up dragging a 600-pound bobsled out of the garage and hurtling down the nearest refrigerated run. Nor did we spend our childhoods scraping down the backyard skating oval for a brisk 7-hour workout. Never mind curling.

I suppose my favorite Winter Olympic event is ski jumping, where there is at least a remote chance of excitement should a sudden gust of wind hit the jumper and cause him to plow into a nearby farmhouse.

Understand, I don't want to see anyone's leg snap in two -- although, let's face it, that's what they have anesthesia for. It just seems to me that a few bumps and bruises is a small price to pay to keep a worldwide TV audience entertained.

Plus it's a hell of a lot more interesting watching paramedics feverishly trying to extricate a ski jumper from a horse trough than returning to the speed-skating oval, where the racers are still going around and around and around and . . .

The big news at these Winter Games will be the absence of traditional powers East Germany and the Soviet Union. The East Germans and their notorious performance-enhancing drugs will compete for a united Germany, enhancing the prospect that we'll soon see heavy beards on 16-year-old female figure skaters and bobsled pushers with legs the size of baby Sequoias.

As for the former Evil Empire, apparently athletes from Russia, Ukraine, Belarus -- stay with me here -- Kazakistan, Uzbekistan and whatever stray republic is emerging as we go to press, will represent something known as the Unified Team.

(Say, there's a snappy name! What's the team cheer: "Go you Unifieds!?" Or how about "Gimme a U! Gimme an N! Gimme a . . .?" Nah, no zip to it.

Instead of playing 200 different national anthems when one of the "Unis" wins an event, the Olympic anthem, Beethoven's "Ode to Joy," will be played. Oh, sure, you have to wait in line 14 hours to buy a tomato in Moscow, but at least they've got this anthem business squared away.

Anyway, the whole shebang will be brought to you by CBS. Prime-time co-hosts will be Paula Zahn, said to look excellent in the network's colorful new sweaters, and veteran baseball broadcaster Tim McCarver, who should enhance viewer knowledge of the Games from his unique perspective as a former crotch-grabbing, tobacco-spitting catcher for the Cardinals and Phillies.

CBS bigwigs pray McCarver will not suffer a psychotic episode and begin telling old Ralph Kiner stories or expounding on the beauty of the sacrifice bunt while the Nordic combined is in progress.

McCarver apparently "slipped" during a pre-Games interview with Italian superstar Alberto Tomba, asking the slalom ace if his team had a strong enough bullpen to challenge the Blue Jays for the AL East title.

The lantern-jawed broadcaster was quickly wrestled into the CBS medical tent and sedated with an impressive assortment of powerful medications.

He is expected to recover completely.

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