The most aggressive, most frantic media scrums I ever dealt with in 45 years as a sportswriter were during the coverage of the bruising soap opera between Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding that played out at the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway.
All eyes were on the pair of American figure skaters after Kerrigan had been clubbed in the right knee by a metal baton during a practice session at the U.S. figure skating trials in Detroit a month earlier.
The attack — orchestrated in varying degrees by Harding’s ex-husband Jeff Gillooly and three associate goons — was meant to knock Kerrigan out of competition, which it did in Detroit.
Harding may well have had a hand in the plan, although she denied it. Eventually, the men would all get prison sentences.
Kerrigan healed and represented the U.S. in Lillehammer. So did Harding, the winner in Detroit. That made for some of the most surreal, tension-filled scenes in Norway as the pair shared the same suite in the Olympic Village and then skated on the same practice ice at the same time before two nights of competition that drew two of the largest prime time TV audiences in history.
All the world was captivated by this sequined rendition of beauty and the beast and the media elbowed, punched and connived simply to get close enough to hear an utterance or capture a candid moment.
I remember interviewing a guy named Trond Roedsmoen, an Olympic Village official who had access to the dormitory that housed the two women. That meant he also had access to their trash cans, personal belongings and maybe even the skaters themselves.
He claimed a journalist — who he refused to name — offered him 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds) of lutefisk for such access.
Norwegians love lutefisk, a much sought after delicacy that is actually dried cod turned jelly-like with lye and often served with bacon fat, boiled potatoes and mushy peas.
“I was not for sale,” Roedsmoen proudly told me.
Kerrigan would go on to win a silver medal behind Oksana Baiul’s gold. Harding struggled, and soon after it was discovered she had kept quiet when she learned Kerrigan might be targeted in an attack. She was banned by figure skating and stripped of the title she’d won in Detroit.
She became a pariah, relegated to sideshows, one of which got me in contact with her again.
After six boxing matches, three losses and two broken noses, she was scheduled to fight at the Grand Victoria Casino in Rising Sun, Indiana. I called her at her home in Washington state and we had a rollicking conversation.
She was worked up about a bogus web site bearing her name and nude pictures supposedly of her.
“That’s not my site,” she huffed. “The nude pictures, the ones with the lines (over the eyes), that’s not me. If I had a body like that, do you think I’d be boxing? My ((breasts) aren’t that big. Come to Rising Sun and you can see.”
With the XXIII Olympic Games set to open in Pyeongchang, Korea on Friday, Harding is back in the news again. She was featured in an ABC documentary “Truth and Lies: The Tonya Harding Story” and now in a new film, “I, Tonya” that stars Dayton-raised actress Allison Janney as her abusive mom.
Although I don’t miss Harding, I certainly miss covering the Olympic Games. They enabled me to see the world. I reported from a dozen of them. Six were in the summer and the six Winter Games were in Canada, France, Norway, Japan, Italy and Salt Lake City.
Along with the competitions, I got to see the countryside and meet some interesting people, none more so than Father Marcel Charvin.
Not long after I got to the 1992 Winter Games in Albertville, France, I ran into Jean Claude Killy, who had won three skiing golds in the Winter Games at Grenoble 24 years earlier.
He was from Val d’Isere, a town of fewer than 2,000 people that had accounted for 10 Olympic gold medals over the years.
I asked him why his hometown was so special and he mentioned Father Charvin, an old priest who he said had a special blessing for the favorite sons of Val d’Isere.
He suggested I visit Charvin.
A day’s trip got me to the priest’s door, but when he answered, I realized I had a problem. He spoke no English, I no French.
My heart sank, but then I excused myself, went back outside and regrouped. I spied a nearby tavern, walked in and offered $50 to anyone who could speak English and would interpret a conversation with the priest.
The town butcher stepped forward and, with a few beers in him, ended up asking far better questions than mine.
The 79-year-old Father Charvin told of his arrival at Val d’Isere in 1940 and how the remote outpost was so poor that during the winter people slept in the lofts of their houses and the goats and cows stayed downstairs, their body heat helping warm the dwelling.
He recalled the Germans marching into town in World War II and demanding 2,000 cows. He and others said it would take two days to round up the stock. Instead, the French Resistance set up an ambush and after a good luck Mass officiated by Charvin, the Germans were routed.
Hail to the King
Over the years, I interviewed scores of great athletes — from Katarina Witt, Alberto Tomba and Dan Jansen to Bonnie Blair, Hermann Maier and Apolo Ohno — and some novel competitors, too.
There were the Jamaican bobsledders and especially the inept, Mr. Magoo-like British ski jumper Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards, who described his introduction to the sport as:
“When I looked from the top of the jump, I was so frightened that my bum shriveled up like a prune.”
The Miami Valley has only had a handful of Winter Olympians and I covered a few, especially Kristin King, the Piqua High School grad, who didn’t just win a bronze medal with the U.S. women’s hockey team in Turin in 2006, but dedicated her efforts to the memory of her late mother, Mary Ellen, who, before dying of cancer, had regularly driven her to rinks as far off as Detroit so her daughter could follow her dream.
After the Games, Kristin returned to Piqua, where she was put into the overhead bucket of the fire department’s ladder truck and driven around town in a big parade honoring her.
“I didn’t think anybody would be there, but when we turned onto Main Street: BOOM. It was crazy,” she said. “The street was lined with people three and four deep. The Channel 7 helicopter was flying overhead. A Dayton radio station called my cell phone for a live interview. Kids had signs and shirts with my No. 19. There was ticker tape and that humongous Dave Arbogast flag was hanging at the end of Main Street. … I just smiled till my muscles got sore.”
She’d end up getting keys to the cities of Piqua and Troy. Susie’s Big Dipper named a sundae after her. Hobart Arena put her jersey on display, the high school put her photo in the trophy case and a big sign was erected along County Road 25A -- right near the high school -- proclaiming Piqua the “Home of Kristin King … 2006 Olympic Ice Hockey Bronze Medal Winner.”
I also covered snowboarder Gretchen Bleiler, a product of Oakwood’s Harman Elementary, who made her Olympic name in Turin, where she won silver in the half-pipe. Soon after she graced national magazine covers, became a YouTube sensation and ended up one of the most popular Winter Olympic faces ever from the U.S.
When she found out I was from Dayton, the one place she wanted to talk about was Ashley’s Pastry Shop in Oakwood. Although she was 10 when she and her mom moved on to Aspen, she remembered going to Ashley’s as a little girl for “treats” and said it remained a magical place of her childhood.
One other local Olympian I wrote about was Stefan Ustorf, the NHL player, who represented Germany in four Olympic Games. His wife Jodi had been an Alter High School and Bowling Green athlete and they lived with their children part time in Springboro.
But the most interesting involvement I ever had with German athletes — East German athletes — was at the 1988 Games in Calgary.
A janitor told me he lived on a deserted country road and said there were some strange happenings in his neighbor’s barn. Trucks came and went in the night. He saw men with guns, and his neighbors — the Loumas — were suddenly very tight-lipped about the strangers who had taken over their property.
I slipped out there, knocked at the door and finally Irene Louma answered. “You’ll have to go, this is secret stuff,” she said. “These guys aren’t fooling. They …”
A hand appeared from behind the door and Irene melted away, replaced by a guy in the exact same sweat suit I had previously seen on the East German bobsledders who were involved in snowy subterfuge with the West Germans and Swiss.
A Swiss sled had been sabotaged. An East German had been threatened.
And now here was an unsmiling guy whose attention was divided between me and the three large, tarp-covered shipping crates next to the barn.
“Hey, what’s in those boxes out there?” I asked.
“Vat boxes?” said the guy, who had a gun in his waistband. “You go…now.”
Believe it or not
As encounters with strangers go, I experienced the other end of the spectrum on the first day in Nagano, Japan, for the 1998 Winter Games,
I left my new camera on the floor of the taxi I’d taken to the press center. Within minutes I realized what I had done and was at a loss because I didn’t know the name of the cab company.
An hour into my funk, there was a ruckus near the front of the press center. A cab had lurched to a stop and the driver — my driver — had run past the guards with the camera.
Through an interpreter, I tried thanking him, but he shook his head. He said it had been his fault, that I was in his care and he should have delivered me — and my belongings — safely.
Nagano was one of the best Olympic experiences I had, whether it was spending a morning with Buddhist monks at the sacred, 7th Century Zenko-ji Temple, kibitzing with waitresses at a traditional Japanese restaurant I frequented or trekking a few miles on a narrow trail through a snow-coated evergreen forest beyond the Kanbayashi Snowboard Park.
That’s where I stumbled onto a scene straight out of “Planet of the Apes.”
Gathered around a hot spring were over 100 red-faced, silver-haired snow monkeys. Some frolicked in the whiteness, others traversed the rocky precipices above, and several soaked drowsily in the steaming water, only their heads showing in a scene reminiscent of a Russian bath house in winter.
One of the most searing winter memories came at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, the first Olympic competition following the Sept. 11 attacks just five months earlier.
With a crowd of 52,000 standing in silence in the nighttime cold at Rice-Eccles Stadium, a tattered World Trade Center flag — illuminated only by a spotlight — was slowly brought in by eight Olympians, including Lea Ann Parsley, the skeleton competitor and active firefighter from little Granville east of Columbus.
The 8-by-12-foot flag had been buried three days in the rubble at Ground Zero and since then had become a symbol of patriotism and triumph over evil.
Adding to the moment on this night were the 10 New York and New Jersey firefighters, policemen and Port Authority officers who accompanied the athletes onto the field.
Near the top of the stadium, the 1980 U.S. Olympic gold medal hockey team — the Miracle on Ice college boys who now were men showing their middle age — stood shoulder to shoulder. Tears rolled down the cheeks of Jim Craig, the goalkeeper who knew the embrace of the flag.
Later, left winger Mike Eruzione spoke for everyone:
“Twenty-two years ago, we experienced something I don’t think many athletes in the world ever experienced. When Sports Illustrated voted it the greatest sporting moment of the century, it was mind-boggling. … But this is the ultimate Olympic experience.”
Finally, now, here’s a story with a little less gravitas, though after a few drinks it did seem mind-blowing, as well.
Around midnight on one of my first days at the 1994 Games in Norway, a buddy and I were tromping through the snow along Storgata — Lillehammer’s narrow main street — with Ellen Kolberg, who was showing us the way to another pub.
As we passed the dress shop above which she lived with her two daughters, she happened to mention: “I think there may be a reindeer in my garage.”
With visions of Donner and Blitzen swirling in my brain, I couldn’t wait:
This was an Olympic moment!
With some coaxing, she took us down an alley where my buddy and I crawled over a snow embankment and slowly approached the half-open door on the barn-like garage.
Peering into the darkness, we first saw nothing. Then there was movement in the shadows: A big eye … a large, velvety antler … and, rising from its haunches and stepping forward, a full-grown, white reindeer.
The next day I told everybody about it, and that evening I led four guys to the garage. I’d brought a flashlight, but my beam found nothing except a vacant shed.
With their laughter came the needling:
“Hey, how many other things you seen?”
Looking back now, I can say I saw quite a few.
Although I did skip that Tonya Harding offer.