It was 1989, and I was taking the crisp morning air in St. Moritz, high in the Swiss Alps, preparing for another day of arduous sportswriting labor--the World Bobsleigh Championships, I believe. Let's see: start with a hot chocolate, a brisk ski across the lake, maybe lunch at the Palace and then...
Grrrrraaaack! A horrible grinding sound came from the woods. I turned and saw an asylum escapee hurtling down an icy chute, face first, on what appeared to be a cafeteria tray. He was, in fact, a member of the village "toboggan" club, out for a ride on his "skeleton" sled. Three quick thoughts emerged: it's a bit early in the day for that, he's loonier than a luger, and we'll not see skeleton in the Olympics anytime soon.
Well, it's a new millennium, and no doubt feeling heat from the X-Games generation, the International Olympic Committee has indeed invited the world's best skeleton riders. With a third ya-gotta-be-nuts sliding sport (along with bobsled and luge) now on the schedule, the slate of what Americans consider the Peripherals--nonmarquee sports that zoom into the sporting Zeitgeist every fourth year only to melt away in the post-Games thaw--is at an all-time high. At Salt Lake we'll have all kinds of sleds, cross-country races (some with guns!), ski jumps and ski-jump hybrids. In the past, these events have given us Jamaican bobsledders, hyperdrugged European ski champs and Eddie the Eagle, Great Britain's wonderfully woebegone ski jumper who had all of Calgary ducking for cover in 1988. The U.S. has won about a medal and a half in the Ps.
This year Americans will do well in the Peripherals, so maybe we will pay more attention, and we ought to: they are among the great glories of the Games. Figure skaters? Synchronized swimmers on a frozen pool. Freestyle skiers? Hip-hop show-offs. Snowboarders are worse. But the Ps? Elemental. Pure. Thrilling.
Take skeleton. It was a Mr. Cornish who decided to take the St. Moritz track headfirst during the 1887 tobogganing Grand National. So not only is skeleton not new, it is downright hallowed and has been in the Olympics before, most recently in 1948.
The skeletals insist, against the evidence, that they are not mad. "When all of a sudden you're on a 10-ft. wall and you've got four G-forces pushing you into the sled, that's cool," says Utahan Lincoln DeWitt, 34. He was first in the World Cup rankings last year, but has slid a bit this year. He certainly has a shot at winning, as does teammate Jim Shea Jr., 33, of Lake Placid, N.Y.
Jimmy Shea's was one of the feel-good stories in the run-up to the Games and is now one of the most poignant. His grandfather Jack was the oldest living U.S. Olympic gold medalist at 91, having won twice in speed skating at the 1932 Games. Jimmy's father Jim Sr. was a Nordic combined athlete--that's ski jumping followed by cross-country skiing--in the 1964 Olympics. Both men were to be in the stadium when Jimmy marched in, but Jack was killed in a car accident two weeks ago. Jimmy will slide with his grandfather's funeral card taped to his helmet.