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Hidden Forces
Steve Rushin
February 23, 1998
During a week at the Winter Olympics, obscure athletes driven by invisible powers created the most glorious moments
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February 23, 1998

Hidden Forces

During a week at the Winter Olympics, obscure athletes driven by invisible powers created the most glorious moments

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Ski jumpers, like airplane travelers, rely on blind faith in invisible forces. When a man traveling almost 60 mph leaps from a ski jump at precisely the right moment, the air slams his ski tips to his shoulders, carrying him a greater distance in flight than Barry Sanders covers on the ground most Sundays. However, leap too soon and the ski tips snap downward, like the wing flaps on an Airbus: The jumper flies heels-over-head into the ether, leaving him just enough time, and in the perfect position, to kiss his ass goodbye.

Naturally, ski jumping is the national winter sport of Japan, where one Olympic jumper is called Kamikaze Kasai. The Japanese, of all people, have no word for pressure, though pressure is the most powerful of unseen elements that can act on an athlete. So, instead of leaning on an English crutch word, Japanese jumper Masahiko Harada articulates pressure as "the weight of a nation." His teammate Kazuyoshi Funaki says of sitting alone on a beam atop a ski jump and looking down at the sky, "I feel a sensation down my spine. It's a fantastic feeling—tension in the good sense."

All of this will become relevant in due time, but for now suffice it to say that these have been the Olympics of unseen forces acting on invisible athletes. The Hidden Olympics are those that go largely uncovered by television. Of course, the exploits of America's few superstars have been played and replayed with Zapruder-like analysis—Picabo, we've seen you—but what of the rest of the Yanks? And what of the rest of the world?

Last Saturday, Bjørn Dæhlie of Norway joined former Soviet and Unified Team cross-country skier Raisa Smetanina as the most decorated Winter Olympian ever, winning his 10th medal. But he did so in a sport, cross-country skiing, that is so unappealing to spectators that the first words from the P.A. announcer after Dæhlie's silver medal performance in the 15K were, "Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your patience."

Last Thursday in the 10K, Dæhlie won his sixth gold medal, surpassing a pair of speed skaters, the U.S.'s Eric Heiden and Finland's Clas Thunberg, as the male Winter Olympian with the most golds, but you have most likely never before seen his face. He is Eric Hidin'. In the final 200 meters of Saturday's race, the 30-year-old Dæhlie was passed by his younger countryman Thomas Alsgaard, who happens to live 200 meters from Dæhlie on a street called Kathinka Guldbergs Vei in the small town of Nannestad, about 20 miles north of Oslo. Afterward Dæhlie said something outrageous by today's sports standards.

"I couldn't go faster than I did today," he confessed. "I am very satisfied with the silver medal. I was not better." When pressed by disappointed journalists who had come to see him win a seventh gold and thus surpass retired Soviet speed skater Lydia Skoblikova and former Russian cross-country skier Lyubov Egorova as the most gilded Olympian of either gender, Dæhlie declined to detonate. "I'm not disappointed at all," he said. "When you don't win and you see why, it's quite easy to accept."

Dæhlie might have won his seventh gold earlier in the week, but he had used the wrong ski wax during the 30K and finished 20th. Bad wax is not the bane of Madame Tussaud alone. In cross-country, bad wax must be avoided at all costs, which is why Russian stars Larissa Lazhutina and Olga Danilova have won three golds and two silvers between them: An Oz-like Russian army colonel named Alexander Voronin spends some 20 hours a day during the Olympics applying all manner of homemade ablutions to their skis in a secret location near the Snow Harp course in Hakuba.

A former top skier himself, the 48-year-old native of Sakhalin, an island off the east coast of Russia, rises for work at 5 a.m. "We sleep no more than two to three hours a day," Voronin will sigh, if you can find him, and you can't, so don't bother. He makes next to no money, and he is absolutely indispensable. "I can trust him with my life, let alone my skis," says Lazhutina, who adds, "He has the hands of gold."

Such are the often unseen powers at work in these Olympics. Zhao Hongbo and Shen Xue of China finished fifth in the figure skating pairs, but anyone who saw Zhao flinging Shen into the arena sky and catching her—flinging and catching, flinging and catching, outrageously high, like she was so much pizza dough—is unlikely to forget it. How to explain the spectacle, except as a confluence of invisible forces: of air pressure and crowd pressure, of bearing up under the weight of a nation. Which brings us back to ski jumping.

Funaki won the silver medal on the 90-meter jump west of Nagano last week, but Harada buckled with all of Japan in his backpack. He led the field after the first of his two jumps but faltered in his second, finishing fifth, a performance ghoulishly reminiscent of Lillehammer, where four years ago Harada's unaccountably short second jump in the team competition cost Japan a gold medal. "He has a very painful feeling right now," Funaki said last week of his kindly teammate, who became a national object of sympathy after weeping in the snow in Norway. "Perhaps that feeling will be an energy source for the 120-meter jump."

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