The Jests of the Rest

  • Right about the time this week that New York City Fireman Raul Muniz starts his 24-hour shift at Engine Company 45 on East Tremont Avenue in the Bronx, athletes in Calgary's Olympic Village will be tumbling out of bed for another day of fun, games and potential glory. Muniz is no stranger to that daily ritual. As one-half of Puerto Rico's two-member luge team, the fire fighter spent pleasant evenings last week playing free video games with the boys and girls of winter and precarious days sliding down the refrigerated luge track on his back at speeds pushing 70 m.p.h. "People were looking down at me, waving and ringing cowbells," he says with wonder. "At the finish they were chanting, 'Ra-ul, Ra-ul.' "

    Ra-ul, 31, is an Olympic athlete no one will ever confuse with Pirmin or Katarina. Slogging where others soar, he was among the Games' engaging foot soldiers, competitors whose contribution is measured in texture and character more than in tenths of a point and hundredths of a second. Many are paupers. One of them, Bobsledder Albert Alexandre Louis Pierre of Monaco, is a prince. Their hopes are for modest rewards. Says Muniz, who happily finished five spots better than last: "None of us wants to be the 'agony of defeat.' "

    The luge and bobsled seem to attract the largest number of Olympic eccentrics, many of whom have found the open-minded governing bylaw about nationality conveniently accommodating. For New Yorker George Tucker, a physicist born in Puerto Rico, Calgary actually offered a chance to improve. At his Sarajevo debut in 1984, Tucker shed alarming amounts of skin bouncing off the wall. "I was the luger who dripped blood," Tucker says. The next ( summer he recruited Muniz, who had schemed to represent Puerto Rico as a kayaker. "Misery loves company," explains Muniz. Argentine Ruben Gonzalez, a chemist, claims yet another distinction. "At any level, I am the only luger in South America." His level leaves an area for improvement just slightly smaller than the pampas.

    The lugers are all seasoned veterans compared with the Jamaican bobsled team, which first put a sled into a starting chute only four months ago. In Calgary the Jamaicans may well win the gold medal for marketing chutzpah. Their T shirts sell for $15, their sweat shirts for $28. There is even a recorded reggae theme song for sale, Hobbin & A Bobbin. But team members bristle when anyone questions their commitment. Says Driver Dudley Stokes, a captain in the Jamaica Defense Forces: "There are no jokers on this team." There is a sprint champion and a reggae singer, though. Stokes flies helicopters but says, "In a helicopter, if something goes wrong, you have a lot more time to think."

    As exotic as the Jamaicans seem, their lineup can't match Prince Albert and his brakeman, a casino croupier. Although he is Monaco's Olympic representative and entitled to royal treatment, Prince Rainier's son lives in the athletes' Village, where he introduces himself as plain Albert. "Fabulous," he says of his first Games. "I just wish I was driving better." That sentiment would be endorsed by the Portuguese, who had difficulty keeping one of their sleds upright.

    Occasionally an athlete will transcend his limitations and capture the imagination of those assembled, electronically and personally. This year's winner at that end of the Games is a 24-year-old plasterer from Cheltenham, England. Michael Edwards, also known as "Eddie the Eagle," points his toes downslope and fearlessly launches himself on some of the shortest flights known to man. A sweet-tempered cross between fictional Ski Jumpers Spuds MacKenzie and Bob Uecker, Edwards finished dead last (but at least not dead) in the 70-meter jump. He scored with the media and the great unfit majority tuning in with his cheerfully loony answers. (His favorite skier? John Paul II.) After Edwards' promotional appearance at a nightclub, we-are-not-amused British Olympic officials stamped their little feetsies, cried foul, and the most ingenuous interview in town will be muzzled until the conclusion of the 90-meter jump.

    That put only a temporary damper on the party being thrown by the athletic % underclass. Most were even making plans for 1992 and beyond. "I've got at least two more Olympics in me," declares Gonzalez. Fellow Luger Tucker is also future-gazing. "Maybe," he says, "it's time to start driving a bobsled." En garde, Albert.