From out of gutter, the real Games rush in LILLEHAMMER '94


LILLEHAMMER, Norway -- The talking point of the Olympics yesterday was an actual, genuine sports story. Imagine that.

Tommy Moe won the downhill, and there wasn't a hit man or a district judge in sight. Moe didn't comment through his attorney or plea bargain for the bronze medal. The "Inside Edition" crews were somewhere else buying big stories.

Early on, it looked like the day would basically rotate around Nancy's Response (you know, to Tonya being allowed to skate), but then suddenly we were confronting -- brace yourself -- the trumpet blare of an actual athletic accomplishment.

Remember those?

Yes, it was quite a shock to the system. Sort of like taking a shower for the first time in a month, if you know what I mean.

The bloated circus of Skategate had swelled to such proportions, come to so dominate the Olympic focus, that it was beginning to seem there would be no games at these Games, just more layers of legal blahblah. We were all up until 3 a.m. the other night waiting for the Oregon judge to bless us with the perfect Olympic oath for the '90s: "The Court has been assured that the Games will now go forward in a spirit of fairness . . . ."

Then, just hours after Tonya's status was settled, Moe came out of nowhere, specifically Palmer, Alaska, and flew down a mountain to win a gold medal reserved for others. And suddenly, on a frigid Scandanavian morning when the sky was a brilliant blue and the snow was as white as white gets, the Olympics leapt out of the tabloid gutter.

Moe's win wasn't just a sports story. It was the classic sports story. It was, in a 105-second nutshell, the very reason we devote so much time to watching other people play games for money and acclaim and usually both. Because, unlike in most of the rest of life, the possibilities are limitless.

This one figured about as much as a sailboat showing up on the Lillehammer lakefront (fjordfront?) yesterday. No male American Winter Olympian had won a gold medal since Brian Boitano in 1988. Moe wasn't about to be the ground-breaker. He hadn't won a major race since his days as a junior champion. He had finished eighth and 14th in his past two World Cup races, 19th in the overall Cup standings for 1993.

They said he was one of the dozen hottest downhillers in the world, but, understand, Buster Douglas just doesn't happen in skiing. It's like tennis, where a few big names take turns.

Bad Bill Johnson was the only American to win the Olympic downhill before yesterday, but he had won seven of eight World Cup races leading to the Games in Sarajevo 10 years ago. He was the man that year. Moe was the nowhere man before the race yesterday. His goal was to finish in the top six.

Instead, he careened down the course and silenced a crowd of cheering, flag-waving Norwegians, whose favorite, Kjetil Andre Aamodt, had taken the lead just before Moe.

When it became evident that his time was going to stand, Moe hugged Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was there hanging around, then went inside and told reporters from around the world that as a youth he had been "a typical American kid, experimenting" with drugs. Take that, Skategate.

Suddenly, these Games had a face other than Tonya's. It was an all-American face with a big jaw and a toothy smile, and it belonged to a 23-year-old ski dude with classic American bluster.

"What I want is to be is a legend," Moe said in an interview with Newsweek before the Games.

Reminded of the quote yesterday, he smiled. "I was at an event with Johnson and Franz Klammer and some other famous skiers last summer," he said, "and they were sitting around smoking cigars and playing golf, and I thought, 'Boy, that's the way to do it.' "

Suddenly, he has his wish. And suddenly, these Olympics are about more than skating mayhem. It was bound to happen, of course, but, as if we needed the maximum dose of reminding, yesterday's first full day at Lillehammer came packaged as four-star theater.

There was Moe. And there was speed skater Johan Olav Koss skating to the gold in front of a packed arena of standing, chanting countrymen, in an arena shaped like the hull of a Viking ship. Goose bumps stuff, believe me.

Out of nowhere, Tonya's plight seemed as tired as overcooked salmon.

Skategate isn't about to go away, of course. We'll all be there when Nancy and Tonya practice together for the first time, when they hug or slug or whatever, when the Big Skate looms. Skategate won't go away this week, next week, ever. We'll be dredging it up years from now, hunting down Tonya somewhere in the Oregon mountains, listening to her chant her mantra of innocence for the 423rd time.

But see, the flip side is that we'll also keep stumbling across the Tommy Moes, the lightning bolts, the big-eyed winners that make us smile, keep us coming back, fish things out of the gutter when they've been in there too long.

"Hey," he asked reporters, "you want to see my medal?"

Sure, we said. Cool.

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