Just This Side of Loony

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It was 1989, and I was taking the crisp morning air in St. Moritz, high in the Swiss Alps, preparing for another day of arduous sportswriting labor—the World Bobsleigh Championships, I believe. Let's see: start with a hot chocolate, a brisk ski across the lake, maybe lunch at the Palace and then ...

Grrrrraaaack! A horrible grinding sound came from the woods. I turned and saw an asylum escapee hurtling down an icy chute, face first, on what appeared to be a cafeteria tray. He was, in fact, a member of the village "toboggan" club, out for a ride on his "skeleton" sled. Three quick thoughts emerged: it's a bit early in the day for that, he's loonier than a luger, and we'll not see skeleton in the Olympics anytime soon.

Well, it's a new millennium, and no doubt feeling heat from the X-Games generation, the International Olympic Committee has indeed invited the world's best skeleton riders. With a third ya-gotta-be-nuts sliding sport (along with bobsled and luge) now on the schedule, the slate of what Americans consider the Peripherals—nonmarquee sports that zoom into the sporting Zeitgeist every fourth year only to melt away in the post-Games thaw—is at an all-time high. At Salt Lake we'll have all kinds of sleds, cross-country races (some with guns!), ski jumps and ski-jump hybrids. In the past, these events have given us Jamaican bobsledders, hyperdrugged European ski champs and Eddie the Eagle, Great Britain's wonderfully woebegone ski jumper who had all of Calgary ducking for cover in 1988. The U.S. has won about a medal and a half in the Ps.

This year Americans will do well in the Peripherals, so maybe we will pay more attention, and we ought to: they are among the great glories of the Games. Figure skaters? Synchronized swimmers on a frozen pool. Freestyle skiers? Hip-hop show-offs. Snowboarders are worse. But the Ps?

Elemental. Pure. Thrilling.

Take skeleton. It was a Mr. Cornish who decided to take the St. Moritz track headfirst during the 1887 tobogganing Grand National. So not only is skeleton not new, it is downright hallowed and has been in the Olympics before, most recently in 1948.

The skeletals insist, against the evidence, that they are not mad. "When all of a sudden you're on a 10-ft. wall and you've got four G-forces pushing you into the sled, that's cool," says Utahan Lincoln DeWitt, 34. He was first in the World Cup rankings last year, but has slid a bit this year. He certainly has a shot at winning, as does teammate Jim Shea Jr., 33, of Lake Placid, N.Y.

Jimmy Shea's was one of the feel-good stories in the run-up to the Games and is now one of the most poignant. His grandfather Jack was the oldest living U.S. Olympic gold medalist at 91, having won twice in speed skating at the 1932 Games. Jimmy's father Jim Sr. was a Nordic combined athlete—that's ski jumping followed by cross-country skiing—in the 1964 Olympics. Both men were to be in the stadium when Jimmy marched in, but Jack was killed in a car accident two weeks ago. Jimmy will slide with his grandfather's funeral card taped to his helmet.

DeWitt says of lugers, who travel feetfirst, "Those guys are nuts." Not at all, says Gordy Sheer, who with doubles partner Chris Thorpe won America's first-ever luge medal in Nagano. Sheer is now the team's acting marketing director: "We don't have purple hair. We're not slamming six-packs of Mountain Dew and riding our BMX bikes to practice." Perhaps not, but lugers do reach 90 m.p.h.

To finish up at the track, we visit the bobsledders. The U.S. women are famously controversial, owing to top-gun driver Jean Racine kicking her former best friend and brakeman Jen Davidson out of the sled. Racine and new brakeman Gea Johnson still have a good chance to medal. On the men's side, Texan Todd Hays, 32, is a household name from Calgary to Cortina after emerging during the current World Cup series as a daring driver with a superfast sled.

His tale is a beauty. A national kickboxing champ, he won a 1994 push contest sponsored by the bobsled federation. Suddenly a guy who had barely seen a snowflake was in Lake Placid but needed a sled. To raise money to buy one, he entered the 1995 Ultimate Fighting Championship in Japan, where he faced wrestler Koichiro Kimura in the first round. "It was a hungry crowd, and the extreme-fear factor was really high," Hays recalls. Channeling the adrenaline, he beat Kimura. Hays won $10,000, bought a sled and, once on the track, discovered that "the fight had helped me. My fear factor in the sled is never maxed out, and I can concentrate on the task at hand." He has won in two- and four-man bobs this year and is a favorite in Utah despite the loss of pusher Pavle Jovanovic, who was disqualified for a positive drug test (he is appealing the decision).

Over on the jumping hill is a physical wonder from Anchorage named Alan Alborn (nicknamed, of course, Airborn). Alborn, 21, is 5 ft. 11 in. and 130 lbs., as strong as steel, and he's been jumping since he was 9. His fear of flying kept him from early greatness, but he has finally broken that barrier. With a "frog concept" technique that has him squatting low on the inrun and then exploding high at takeoff, he can now soar more than 200 m. With the home crowd pumping him up—a big factor for jumpers—he could bring home the team's first medal in 78 years.

Airborn is a full-time jumper; Todd Lodwick, 25, of Steamboat Springs, Colo., and Bill Demong, 21, of Vermontville, N.Y., are part-timers. The U.S. has traditionally stunk in their event, the Nordic combined; Lodwick finished 20th at Nagano. This Olympiad, the U.S. co-opted the competition, poaching head coach Jan-Erik Aalbu from Norway, a perennial medal winner. Lodwick, now ranked fourth in the world, has a gold and a silver this World Cup season. Demong won an event in the Czech Republic two weeks ago. "I was hoping we could be strong," says Aalbu. "I was not expecting to be as strong as we are looking."

Biathlon is another yin-yang event, as it combines cross-country skiing—which gets the heart rate roaring—and riflery, which requires a calm, relaxed touch. Europeans are still the best, but American Jay Hakkinen, 24, has placed as high as fifth in a World Cup event. Hakkinen, who has been blasting since 1994, says that despite America's habitual futility in biathlon, he has heard only support, never ridicule: "You just don't joke around about the guy with the gun, I guess."

You still can, if you like, make jokes about the cross-country ski team, which will get buried in ice chips. It's not the team's fault. The worst-kept secret this side of bike racing is that the best cross-country skiers, seeking superhuman endurance, are often druggies. "If you take the results page and look at the Top 30," says Justin Wadsworth, 33, who will compete in his third Games at Salt Lake City, "up to 40% could possibly be dopers ... It almost makes me sick." Last year six Finns failed drug tests at the world championships. Rest assured, no matter how many are caught before the Olympic start gun sounds, enough will beat the tests to whip any and all Yanks. At least in one Peripheral, we will still look peripheral.

—Reported by Amanda Bower