- The Washington Times - Monday, February 13, 2006

SESTRIERE, Italy — Scotland’s Finlay Mickel, who represented Great Britain in the men’s downhill at the Winter Olympics yesterday, had a lot of support in the crowd. So did his father, Bruce.

Bruce Mickel led a cheering delegation from Edinburgh that included Finlay’s wife, sister and brother. Bruce, decked out in a Buchanan tartan kilt and a Balmoral hat, played the bagpipes. It was all traditional, except for one detail.

“This is the first time in my life that I haven’t traveled commando,” Bruce Mickel said, referring to how real Scotsmen remain, shall we say, unencumbered beneath the kilt.

He said he learned his lesson from another skiing competition in Italy when the temperature was 14 degrees “and I couldn’t speak for a week. That’s probably a euphemism. My wife said, ‘You better wear your short johns.’”

Duly clad and protected from the elements, Mickel predicted a top-10 finish for his son. But Finlay ended up 25th in the field of 55.

“I wanted to have my best performance of the season,” he said. “Clearly this was not my best.”

It was still a party, though. Ski crowds are like NASCAR gatherings for sheer enthusiasm and a little craziness, although this bunch was a little more subdued than others. Comparing the buzz to the 2002 Winter Games, Italian skier Kurt Sulzenbacher said, “It’s not the same as in Salt Lake. Maybe they’re freezing.”

Not Bruce Mickel.

Gathered behind the finish line only as opposed to lining the course, a concession to safety, it was still a flag-waving, cowbell-clanging collection displaying a variety of nationalities, dress and eccentricities.

There was, for example, the French fellow dressed as a mountain man toting a gigantic cowbell. He was the head of the Yannick Bertrand fan club. Bertrand finished 24th, just ahead of Mickel, but Mountain Man got to ring his bell furiously when another Frenchman, Antoine Deneriaz, pulled a shocking upset and won the gold medal, beating out the better known Michael Walchhofer, Hermann Maier, Daron Rahlves and, of course, Bode Miller.

The big bell, a friend of Mountain Man explained, represented the Queen Cow, who leads the other cows into the pasture. In his backpack was the head of a chamois, a large, goat-like animal indigenous to the Alps. Yes, it’s the same creature whose coat gave birth to the type of cloth with which you wash your car.

When sport brings the world together, it’s touching. And often strange. You never know what you might see.

You might see a man with a thick, jet-black beard measuring almost a foot long. That would be Phil Olsen, who bills himself as “Beard Team USA Captain.” He also said he is a close, personal friend and ardent supporter of Daron Rahlves. They both live near Lake Tahoe, Nevada.

Olsen was carrying a big American flag fastened to a tree branch he picked up while making his way into the venue. When fans saw him (he was pretty hard to miss), they started chanting, “USA! USA!”

Olsen responded with, “Daron Rahlves! Daron Rahlves!”

“Daron’s gonna win today,” he said. “At least 50 people from Tahoe are here to see him win. … Daron’s the favorite. He’s great on a very steep, very hard course. He could be the best skier in the world.”

Rahlves finished 10th.

It was an arduous trip for Olsen and not just because his man failed to medal. Staying just a few towns over, he was still exposed to what many visitors and journalists already have experienced — the well-meaning but geographically challenged Italians.

Olsen said it took nearly four hours to travel about 30 miles.

“It wasn’t traffic. It was just bad organization,” he said. “I hate to generalize, but my God, it’s a screwed-up mess. Buses don’t go where they’re supposed to. More often than not, you get incorrect information.”

Olsen also described the security at the event as a “disaster.” He said X-ray machines weren’t working and people were just standing around.

“It was an absolute snail’s pace,” he said.

Welcome to the club, Phil. Welcome to the club.

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