- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Bode Miller creates a stir every time he opens his mouth and sometimes when he doesn’t. Daron Rahlves is the better U.S. skier at the moment after a big win last weekend. And Michelle Kwan has a place on the Turin team — for now.

Even so, the early edge for a starring role in this year’s Olympic soap opera goes to, of all things, the skeleton crew.

The Winter Games might still be a month away, but the Americans aren’t lacking for headlines.

“I would say, generally, that bad publicity is better than no publicity at all,” said David Wallechinsky, Olympic historian and author of “The Complete Book of the Winter Olympics.”

“With Michelle Kwan back in there, you’ve got some of the star power,” he said yesterday. “I don’t think the negative publicity is really going to detract. Once NBC starts selling their version, their product, we will learn about all sorts of athletes you haven’t heard of yet, and the publicity will be good.”

Winter Olympics — and the athletes who participate in them — traditionally have been overlooked. The Games are far smaller than the summer version, and they’re not nearly as universal. People living just about anywhere in the world can go swimming or play basketball, but it’s a good bet only a tiny percentage in any country can say they’ve taken a ride on a luge.

So while the Summer Games might be on everyone’s calendar, people tend to forget there’s a Winter Olympics until the TV ads roll out in full force a few weeks before they begin.

It seems to be a little different this year, though.

“I think there is a greater level of awareness and recognition of these athletes further out from the Games than we’ve seen in the past,” said Darryl Seibel, spokesman for the U.S. Olympic Committee. “I think that phenomenon really began before Salt Lake City.”

Not only were the 2002 Games in the United States, they were held less than six months after the Sept.11 attacks. Patriotism and spirit were high, and fans were eager to get behind anything American. When the U.S. team set a national record with 34 medals, shattering the previous winter best of 13, the frenzy grew.

“You move forward now to ‘05-06, and I think you’re seeing a continuation of all of this, a continuation of the recognition of Winter Olympic athletes,” Seibel said. “I would also submit that the stories you have, the stories of athletes who are qualifying for this team are very, very compelling stories.”

Good and bad.

Anyone who’s paid any attention to the news in recent weeks is on a first-name basis with Bode by now. One of the best American skiers ever, if not the best, Miller has landed on the covers of Time and Newsweek but more for his renegade personality than his skills on the mountain.

Miller routinely tests the patience of ski officials and sponsors with his contentious comments, late-night habits and refusal to play by the rules. But the U.S. ski team had enough after he said during an interview on “60 Minutes” that his partying sometimes affected his performance, admitting that “there’s been times when I’ve been in really tough shape at the top of the course.”

U.S. ski coach Phil McNichol publicly questioned whether Miller should stay on the team. U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association president and chief executive Bill Marolt flew to Europe to speak with Miller, who later apologized.

Skeleton is still a fringe sport, made up of thrill-seekers who slide headfirst down an icy chute with nothing but a helmet to protect them. It would draw attention for a day or two in most Olympic years, then slide back into oblivion.

But it’s been all over the news for a month now, first with allegations of sexual harassment against the U.S. coach and then for a bizarre doping case that may have had more to do with enhancing an athlete’s head of hair than his performance.

Coach Tim Nardiello has been suspended while the USOC investigates the sexual harassment allegations made by athletes — which he has repeatedly denied — but the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation went ahead and nominated him as coach. He already has taken his case for reinstatement to court and lost and now has turned to an arbitrator.

Zach Lund, the top American slider, was busted for taking Finasteride, the primary ingredient in the baldness treatment Propecia that also is known to mask certain kinds of performance-enhancing drugs. Lund says he was using the drug to grow hair, not add bulk, and he didn’t realize a rules change last year made it illegal.

Lund is facing a suspension and expects to go before the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency by Jan.23.

“If we had our preferences, of course we’d like all the stories to be good, strong positive stories,” Seibel said. “But even when we’ve had stories that are something other than that, I think the situations are being handled the right way. In less than a week, Bode apologized for his comments, he took responsibility for his comments and his governing body took decisive action.

“If you move from that to the skeleton situation,” he said, “they’re very serious allegations and we immediately upon learning all of this initiated an investigation. We’re treating this matter with the highest priority, it’s receiving our full and complete attention.”

And not all the news is bad.

For all his bluster, Miller is still one of the top skiers in the world. Rahlves was the first American in more than a decade to win on the famed Lauberhorn course last weekend, giving him his third World Cup downhill of the season. The U.S. women’s curling team is so popular it has its own Web site, www.curlgirls.com.

Kwan caused a brief buzz with the should-she-or-shouldn’t-she debate, but few will argue with giving the icon one more shot at that elusive Olympic gold. Especially when she repeatedly has said she’ll withdraw from the team if a monitoring committee doesn’t find she’s healthy or fit enough to compete.

And Sasha Cohen put on one of the better shows of her career to win her first national title, despite being knocked flat with the flu in the days leading up to the competition.

“Publicity doesn’t have to be perfect all the time,” said Tom Collins, the creator of the Champions on Ice tour. “It draws attention to the sport — the good, the bad and the ugly. A prime example is Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding. There was nothing beautiful about that. But the attention on figure skating, there’ll never be attention like it again.”

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