Olympics defining moment finally arrives on a sled

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He was like a kid on a sled.

Of course, Jim Shea was much more than that Wednesday night. He was a 33-year-old athlete -- a champion in his field, an Olympic event called the skeleton which involves sliding down a gutter of ice on something that looks like a lunch tray.

He is the third generation of his family to compete in the Olympics. His father, Jim Sr., competed in three cross-country skiing events in the 1964 Games in Innsbruck.

His grandfather, Jack, became the first double gold medalist in the Winter Olympics when he won two speedskating events at Lake Placid in 1932.

Then came Jim.

The crowd was chanting "U-S-Shea, U-S-Shea." Tucked in his helmet was a photograph of his grandfather, who died last month at the age of 91 in a traffic accident.

Shea was the last competitor in the second heat of the skeleton, and as he came down the course on his belly, an American eagle on his helmet, the split times flashing on the TV screen showed he was oh-so-close. As he came into the last turn, it appeared he was going to finish second by a hair.

At the finish line, though, the clock said Shea -- by five-hundreths of a second -- was a winner.

We were to find out in the next few minutes exactly what that meant. For Jim Shea's victory on his little sled provided the defining moment of the Salt Lake City Olympics, whose motto is "Light the fire within."

The moment, however, didn't come when he crossed that finish line. Nor was it when he dug into his helmet and pulled out the picture of his grandfather. Not even when he hugged his friends and family and grinned like a kid who had just finished the sled ride of his life.

The defining moment came when Shea grabbed the microphone from an NBC reporter and said, "It's not about the medals. It's about being here. It's about making friends. It's about being at the Olympics."

In a flash, Jim Shea wiped out days of cynicism over crooked judging in figure skating.

He made me forget the maudlin, melodramatic hype that accompanies NBC's coverage of the games.

Blown away was the plastic bubble of corporate sponsorship that has destroyed the old-fashioned amateur status of the Olympics.

Later, on the stand as the American flag rose before him, Shea rubbed a dull yellow medal his grandfather had won in 1921. He accepted his own medal, the grin still plastered on face, and mouthed the words to the "Star Spangled Banner." When the ceremony was over, he hugged the Austrian to his right and the Swiss to his left.

Until Shea and his little sled came on the scene, I was deep into my Olympic dilemma -- which arrives every two years, along with the Summer and Winter Games.

I love the Olympics, but I become increasingly exasperated with the television coverage. This time, I had grown fixated on the phrase "Recorded live from a previous broadcast." I think if I can figure out its meaning, I may be able to deduce the meaning of life.

I was as jaded as anybody by the pairs figure-skating scandal. By the judging, then by the obvious political maneuvering that led to the judging, then by media furor over the situation, and finally by the weak-kneed decision to award two gold medals.

In the end, I agreed most with the Russian reaction to the obviously biased judging. "What's the big deal? This happens all the time in figure skating."

Television coverage becomes so overhyped that I become numb to it. Too often it seems like the Miss America Pageant, Academy Awards, Super Bowl and the latest episode of "Survivor" all bleed together. The Olympic Games provide an opportunity to break out of the rut, to give us something fresh.

Unfortunately, NBC spends most of its time on pre-packaged schlock -- and commercials, oh the commercials -- with precious little time on the athletic events themselves.

On Wednesday night, though, in Shea's skeleton races and the short-track skating won by Apolo Anton Ohno on a controversial call, the drama was allowed to unfold on its own.

It was riveting.

And when Shea and his father sat down for an interview with Bob Costas, the newly crowned champ was asked why in the world he would participate in a sport that involves sliding downhill at 80 mph on his stomach.

"It's fun," said Shea.

Thanks, Jim. Because that's why kids start skating and sledding and skiing in the first place. While it clearly requires an extraordinary level of skill and dedication to be given a chance to compete at the Olympic Games, that shouldn't spoil the joy.

By winning the gold, Shea demonstrated he has more than just a fire within. He has the flame.

Barry Smith is managing editor of the Nevada Appeal.


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