Ah, the Winter Olympics are here once again. Every four years I am reminded of the first time I paid attention to them, the games held in Innsbruck, Austria in February 1976.
Although I was too young to comprehend it, the Munich massacre of the summer games held in 1972 introduced me to the Olympics. It was worldwide news, and discussed by every adult I knew. After the tragic events, the games resumed, and I watched. It was impossible not to hear about Mark Spitz, who set a world record by winning seven gold medals in swimming. I had a crush on a Russian gymnast named Olga Korbut, but I kept that to myself. That was to avoid being teased, because girls were still officially "icky." I had never heard of the Cold War.
Four years later, I was interested to watch the winter games. I never liked ice skating (weak ankles and horrible balance were contributing factors) and I had never been skiing. So it wasn't the actual sports, but a deeper understanding that these games were a competition between nations, and watched all around the world.
The first thing to catch my eye was bobsledding. I loved to go sledding on my Flexible Flyer and the sensation of speed when the snow was good and the hill steep. Then I saw luge, which I thought was insane. It was still sledding; however the luge riders went down the track feet first. I was used to sledding head first, using my hands and arms to steer. In retrospect, maybe it isn't wise to lead with your head, but it seemed silly to steer with your feet.
Biathlon killed me. It was the first time I had seen any form of cross country skiing, and I thought it was ridiculous. They weren't even on a hill! It looked like they were walking, instead of letting gravity do all the work. Who would do that? Just as I noticed they had rifles, they stopped skiing and started shooting at targets. Sometimes they would lie down, and sometimes they remained standing. I found it hilarious, wondering who invented the sport, and for what purpose. Years later, I learned it started as a training exercise for Norwegian soldiers. Well, that explains it. I often think of Norwegian soldiers as trendsetters in the world of sport.
When I saw ski jumping, my eyes popped out of my head. The size of the hills and take-off ramps and the distances traveled made me think it should be called ski flying. I wondered if Evel Knievel was aware of this. Heck, if you could combine rifles and cross country skiing, why not ski jumping and motorcycles? The possibilities seemed endless, and to this day it's one of my favorite winter events. I still think someone should try it with a motorcycle, though.
At the time, I wasn't that interested in hockey, but I did watch enough of it to become aware that the Russians were the dominant team, winning their fourth consecutive gold medal that year. That particular piece of information would become even more meaningful in the future, when the next Winter Olympics were held in Lake Placid. In 1980, I did understand the Cold War -- but that's a different story.
My absolute favorite event of the 1976 Winter Olympics was the downhill race in alpine skiing, and the story of Franz Klammer. Franz was born in Austria, so he had a lot of pressure on him to win the gold. It wasn't a long shot; he had won eight out of nine World Cup races in 1975, and had already won three in January 1976. Apparently, self-confidence wasn't an issue for Franz, as his yellow "speed suit" was a thinly veiled reference to the gold medal. I honestly couldn't decide if I wanted him to win, and back up this rather bold statement, or lose just for being cocky.
I didn't know much about skiing, but the announcers explained that Franz would be the last one down the hill that day, which was a disadvantage as the conditions deteriorated after each run. The defending gold medal champion had gone third, and he was in the lead, making it increasingly unlikely anyone could beat his time. Even to me, it was obvious the Franz was really going for it. It looked like he could lose control at any second. At the halfway point, he was slower than the leader, and he pushed it even harder, teetering on the brink of destruction. It was one of the most thrilling things I had ever watched. Click here to see Franz' gold medal run.
Oh, and I thought a figure skater named Dorothy Hamill was pretty cute, and I didn't even try to hide it.