Olympic drama can arise on or off field

You don’t find many biathlon fantasy leagues sprouting up every four years, and there aren’t a lot of bobsled trading cards at memorabilia shops. That doesn’t mean the Winter Olympic Games don’t hold the potential for high entertainment.

The greatest upset victory in team sports was achieved at the 1980 Winter Games in Lake Placid, N.Y., where our college-aged hockey team beat the Soviet Union’s professionals en route to winning the gold medal.

Predicting the USSR to win the gold that year was like betting that midnight would be followed by 12:01. The Soviets had played on even terms in a series against our National Hockey League pros, and in an exhibition game played three days before the Olympics began, they hammered the US amateurs who they would later face, 10-3.

Yet, when they played for keeps, the US college kids stunned the Soviets 4-3, injecting a massive dose of national pride to a shocked crowd that responded with spontaneous, unison cries of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” – the first known instance of that jingoistic outburst.

Due to their exposure globally over the fortnight, the Olympic Games are an intersecting of world-class athletes and geopolitical maneuvering. The US and USSR boycotted Games hosted by each other during the Cold War. Rapprochement on the Korean Peninsula is a hoped-for theme this year in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

Worldwide exposure can turn a successful Olympic competitor into a national treasure. Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci knocked down seven perfect-10 scores at the 1976 Summer Games and became her country’s most famous resident since Dracula.

High drama at the Olympics isn’t limited to the field of competition. Even in a refined and elegant discipline like figure skating, things can get ugly faster than you can say Dick Button.

Scandal was the order of the day at the 1994 Winter Games in Norway, when a surprise kneecapping to one of the skaters spiced up the proceedings. The duel between Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding was the sixth-highest-rated program in television history at that time.

Before the International Olympic Committee began testing for steroids, the only guy punished for a substance violation was Swedish pentathlete Hans-Gunnar Liljenwall, who was bumped from competing at the 1968 Summer Games when he tested positive for alcohol. Tough break, Hans. This Pripps Bryggerier Bla’s for you.

An American runner named Fred Lorz broke the tape at the finish line of the marathon at the 1904 Olympics, but was banned for life by the Amateur Athletic Union when it was learned that he covered 11 miles of the course in the automobile of his manager. Life is short, but the lifetime ban was even shorter. The AAU lifted the injunction after Lorz apologized.

At the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm there was an arts competition. A Frenchman named Baron Pierre de Coubertin won first prize in literature. An interesting footnote is that the idea for an arts competition came from none other than the wordsmith, and probable egomaniac, Baron Pierre de Coubertin.

One of the more satisfying tales of last laughs was that of triple jumper James Connolly, a Harvard student who asked administrators for a leave of absence until the completion of the 1896 games. Harvard said no. Connolly was made to drop out in order to compete in the Games, which he did, and then took first place in his event, which at the time was called the Hop, Skip and Jump.

In a gesture that illustrated how victory has a hundred fathers but defeat is an orphan, Harvard offered their accomplished ex-student an honorary degree. To his eternal credit, Connolly told Harvard to take an honorary hike.

A couple of things that haven’t changed with the Olympics through the years are the ritual grand introductions to the competition, and the relentless pushing of human boundaries in pursuit of athletic excellence.

As part of the opening ceremonies to this year’s games, the Olympic torch was passed around to 7,500 torchbearers covering more than 1,200 miles across South Korea – including one stretch by a robot, who toted the flame for 500 feet.

Robots got their foot in the door? Well, “human boundaries” for the time being, anyway.

Veteran sportswriter Gary Seymour’s column appears weekly in the Leader. He can be contacted at sports@wolfrivermedia.com.