The old Greeks who invented the Olympics would have railed against today's bribes, snowboards, and billion-dollar economic packages. They might have been marginal on Salt Lake City and not very hot on skeleton drivers and curlers flailing their broomsticks.
But they would have loved Johnny Bauer.
Bauer is an American cross-country skier, an Olympian for the third and last time. On Friday night he will parade with Team USA in the opening ceremonies of the Winter Games in Salt Lake City in front of hundreds of millions of people around the world watching on television. You shouldn't expect the cameras to zoom in on John when they have more celebrated targets like Bode Miller and Michelle Kwan and Apolo Anton Ohno not far away.
John is an Olympic obscurity, a 5-foot-8 little guy with blue eyes, a compact frame, and waning dreams. He will be grinning and proud and waving his arm and crying inside because this day will be the summit of his life in athletics.
John Bauer is not going to win in the Olympics. American cross-country skiers long ago learned the virtues of a manageable humility, because they don't have more than a prayer to beat those big-striding Norwegians and their rivals.
So why would the early Olympians have called John Bauer a compatriot? And why would a genuine Olympic hero, Mike Ramsey of the American "Miracle on Ice" in 1980, understand? They would for the same reason that the John Bauers of these games deserve the roars and the hurrahs - just once - from those huge crowds who know the more famous faces better because they'll see them on the pedestals.
The Olympic multitudes know the John Bauer quality when they see it, the mark he will bring to his races - wherever he finishes. Despite all of the
grotesque money that saturates these Olympics, you can still find an amateurish zeal that makes something noble out of raw, uncompromising effort. The ballplayers in America have a couple of marvelous expressions for it. They will say, "this guy brings it," or "he sells out [his body] on every play." It characterizes the athlete who gives every game, every race, every play the full commitment of will and strength he or she can deliver.
You will see it when Miller charges down the slopes, fearless and impetuous, propelled by a primitive fury to extract every ounce of competitive fire within him. It's why the Olympics trigger enormous TV audiences. There's also the goad of nationalism, of course, and the American audiences will pour it out in every venue. You know it will be global. If you've heard jokes about the passivity of Norwegians, spend some time in front of a TV set in Stavanger when the Norse skiers come on. It's like New Orleans before Lent.
But this is the best competition on earth, and the most intimate and irresistible. It's ours against yours, Swedes, Germans, Russians, Finns, Americans, Canadians and, yes, the Iranians. And while it's in front of you all of those stories about the security fortress and the anti-doping watch and the sweetheart deals between the network and the sponsors tend to dissolve for a few hours. Because here is Kwan. And there is Slutskaya. And the Olympics become a stunning concert of art and strength and will, and the drama of it unites competitor and audience magnetically.
And what can John Bauer tell you about it?
He can tell you how it can grip the athlete to exhaustion. He grew up in a suburb of Minneapolis and learned to ski near his parents' strawberry farm. At 32 he's no athletic tycoon. He runs a massage parlor in Duluth, Minn., and wants to teach German. He lives in country where cross-country skiers don't haul down much boodle, and he skied with American teams in two Olympics in the 1990s without much acclaim. This one, he says, will be his last.
"I'll tell you the way it is in cross-country," he says. "You go until you're drained. Just drained. And then you try to go some more. Sometimes you have to dig down so deep you actually see stars. The only thing in the world that keeps you going is the getting to the top of the hill. The great Norwegian skier Bjorn Daehlie - when he hit the finish line, all you saw was a bag of bones. He gave it that much. People ask if it's been worth it. Oh, it has. You know, one of the great things about this sport and Olympic competition is the gratification you get out of knowing that you're competing with the best. You don't have to get a medal to know that. And another reward in it is how you've built your body ... making yourself just as good as you can be. But I know this will be my last one, and it will be sentimental for me along with all the rest." Along with the exhaustion and flashing stars at the top of the hill.
Mike Ramsey, later a pro for 18 years, didn't see stars in the last moments of the American victory over the Soviets in the 1980 Olympics at Lake Placid. He did see the puck. And he had to swallow to keep from coming unglued.
"We were young. I was only 18, a defenseman, a freshman from the University of Minnesota. Herb Brooks [the Olympic men's coach then, and again this month] liked the way I played tough and the way I covered the ice, so he picked me. We played the Russians in an exhibition a few days before we met in the Olympics. They beat us 12-3. We were awed.... But maybe it was good for us. We had seen them and been blown out. They were a little complacent the second time. And we found we could play with them. We got up by a goal late in the game. And the crowd started, 'USA, USA.' It kept us on fire, but we were still hanging on and with five seconds, Kenny Morrow, on defense with me, reversed the puck behind our goal and to me. It was hairy. I said I got to get this thing out, get it out. Somehow we kept it away and we won and everything exploded. I'll remember it always. It was beautiful."
There is something about the Olympics to make an 18-year-old grow up suddenly.