Olympic spotlight is on scandal

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ST. LOUIS -- Citius, altius and fortius, meet sex, booze and drugs.

Less than a month before the Feb. 10 opening ceremony for the Winter Games, athletes preparing for sports that will be contested in Turin, Italy, are predictably making headlines -- but not in predictable ways and certainly not in the way that U.S. Olympic officials might have liked.

"The spotlight is on. The Winter Olympics are here, and everything that happens is magnified about 1 million percent," says Bob Condron, a U.S. Olympic Committee spokesman. "It seems like this year, though, everything is bizarre."

It's Olympians gone wild.

Thursday night in the U.S. figure skating championships here, leader Johnny Weir, who had gone onto the ice wearing a single gauzy glove even Michael Jackson wouldn't use, drew a rebuke from the USOC after calling a competitor's high-energy program "a vodka shot, snort coke kind of thing."

Skier Bode Miller took his sizzle from the slopes to the TV screen in a 60 Minutes interview during which he admitted competing while "wasted." He later apologized.

A photo of the seven members of the U.S. women's luge team wearing nothing but their sleds appeared on a Web site promoting a bar drinking game.

Head skeleton coach Tim Nardiello has been suspended after allegations of sexual harassment, and Zach Lund, the team's top slider, is facing sanctions after a positive drug test that he claims is due to using a hair restoration product.

Snowboarder Gretchen Bleiler posed for a magazine two years ago wearing nothing but nature's speed suit.

"You can almost count on loony things coming up," Condron said. "You wonder, 'Who's in charge here, Pee-wee Herman?'"

Paul Reubens, who played Pee-wee Herman, was zany comedian who might fit right in except that he lacks a quadruple toe loop.

It is hard, in some cases, to tell whether the behavior is the work of a free spirit, an indiscreet self-indulgence or a calculated move on behalf of a sponsor.

Miller's comments reinforced his wild-child image and bolstered Nike's "Join Bode" campaign to sell more merchandise to young people yearning to be "the bold, the brazen, the unintimidated." But it caused embarrassment for the U.S. ski team, which forced Miller to apologize this week.

Yet in one fell swoop -- or swoosh -- this week Nike's logo was everywhere, and skiing became the most-talked-about Olympic sport.

ABC's Nancy Weiner said on World News Tonight: "Privately, some in the skiing community say this controversy might not be such a bad thing. Skiing doesn't always get a lot of attention here in the U.S., and nothing generates interest like a bad boy."

Miller became a punch line in Jay Leno's Tonight Show monologue this week: "He apologized, and today he said when he gave the interview he was really wasted. Just the liquor talking."

Of course, NBC paid $1.5 billion to broadcast the Winter Games from Turin and the 2008 Summer Games from Beijing.

Condron said times have changed. More media outlets has meant that athletes' comments get more exposure, and "everything you say could hit the light of day. We have a good team. We have neat people on the team -- sharp, with a sense of humor, and you love to hear them talk."

But for all the media noise, Chicago-based sports marketing consultant Marc Ganis doesn't think the mild controversies will hurt the Olympians because most people aren't paying attention to the Olympics yet. He said Miller's story is the only one resonating widely, and he argued that the skier might benefit from the attention.

"We like counterculture heroes," he said. "Put it all on the line. Play hard. Live on the edge. ... If he goes out there on the first day and wins the downhill, this could be the Bode Miller Olympics."

There's still room for more money to be made off misdeeds of Olympic proportions. Doping violations are such a part of Olympic sports now that BetUS.com is taking wagers on which countries will produce the most medals and which will produce the first drug positive. The United States is the second favorite at 2 to 1 odds, behind Russia.

Condron said that taken together, the incidents of this year seem overwhelming but that 2006 is "nothing compared to 1994. It was a total Tonya-Nancy thing.

"You could have gone out to a Brazilian rain forest and gone up to a group of fishermen and said 'Tonya-Nancy,' and they would have said, 'yes,'" he said of the drama surrounding the knee-whacking of figure skater Nancy Kerrigan by associates of rival Tonya Harding. "That was an oxygen-sucker of all time."

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Childs Walker contributed to this article.

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