Games `Welcome Mat' Shrinks

BACK-OF-THE-FIELD athletes who once were welcomed into the cold fraternity of the Winter Games now are being told not to bother packing their long johns unless they can meet new qualifying standards.

Concerned that the Olympics might become overrun and cheapened by what some call ``tourist athletes,'' the Olympics have tightened the screening process since the 1992 Winter Games in Albertville, France.

The new direction, while not readily apparent to casual viewers, threatens to change the very nature of the Olympics, some say.

Julian Munoz, a Costa Rican skier at the 1988 and 1992 Winter Games, counts himself among them. ``Until now, the Olympics have been a very open international event,'' he says. ``What the International Olympic Committee has done is make it less than that and made it into a glorified World Cup event,'' a reference to the season-long circuits established for elite-level competition.

Munoz, who works for the Costa Rican consulate in San Francisco and has an architectural degree from the University of California, Berkeley, has been something of a one-man crusade against the trend away from Olympic openness.

Munoz corresponded with Olympic officials and shared his concerns in letters to the Monitor before the Winter Games got under way in Lillehammer, Norway.

Munoz says that a special dimension of the Olympics lies in the camaraderie among the athletes from the many participating nations. ``Ask any athlete,'' he says, ``and this fact remains almost more important than the competitions themselves.''

He points out a grand gesture made by Alpine skier Alberto Tomba as an example of this spirit of togetherness. After Olympic victories in the 1988 slalom and giant slalom races, the Italian superstar hoisted the last-place finisher on his shoulders, which in each case was one of Munoz's Costa Rican teammates.

Good sportsmanship

Such displays of sporting esprit de corps, Munoz says, are part and parcel of the traditional Olympic atmosphere, which is more United Nations than intimate summit conference. ``The wider representation at the Olympics'' enables them to be more enriching, he says.

Nonetheless, Munoz acknowledges that there should be a line drawn somewhere, lest the Olympics become burdened by too many athletes, including some whose presence mainly seems a comical distraction.

Perhaps the competitor most often cited in this regard is Eddie (the Eagle) Edwards, the British ski jumper who some felt made a mockery of his event at the 1988 Games in Calgary, Canada. Edwards finished last (though in one piece) in both the 70- and 90-meter events.

To millions, the bespectacled plasterer from Cheltenham, England, was a Walter Mitty-like figure, sort of a fluttering daredevil on holiday.

More Walter Mittys?

What might become of the Olympics if a flock of ``Eagles'' showed up at the Games? And could the Olympics afford to allow people to risk life and limb for the glory of a sound bite?

Certainly extensive television coverage has played into the hands of potential publicity seekers. No nook or cranny of the Olympics escapes notice anymore, and the peculiar is often attractive as a change of pace.

In Munoz's sport of Alpine skiing, a straw that helped break the camel's back came at the '92 Games, when one skier passed another on the course. ``That was much too embarrassing for officials to stand,'' Munoz says. (Skiers are sent down the mountain about every 30 seconds in the slalom events.)

The International Ski Federation, which sets the rules for Olympic skiing, subsequently instituted eligibility regulations. Olympic entrants must be among the world's top 500 men or top 600 women on the World Cup circuit. If those standards are not met, a country is entitled to enter one male or female if that individual is among the top 1,500 athletes worldwide.

This latter standard clearly is intended to placate developing countries like Costa Rica. Yet as generous as it sounds, Munoz says that non-Alpine nations are off the charts when it comes to international rankings.

He advocates one automatic entrant for every country, with responsibility for selecting worthy representatives placed in the hands of National Olympic Committees.

In some sports, such as cross-country skiing, bobsled, and luge, participation is limited to individuals who have competed in a prescribed minimum number of international competitions. This hasn't inhibited athletes in some warm-weather climates like the US Virgin Islands and Trinidad and Tobago, who have followed the lead of Jamaica's bobsledders, now entered in their third Olympics.

Even so, the Olympic doors that once seemed so wide open are only ajar now. Munoz says much of Latin America and Africa is indirectly excluded by the new regulations.

Some of the athletes that get in unexpectedly are, like Munoz, third-world nationals situated in developed countries.

Munoz's entry into the Olympics came as an outgrowth of his diplomatic work in San Francisco, where he met the the president of the Costa Rican Olympic Committee. They discussed his participation, and he took competitive racing instruction.

Munoz managed to finish each Olympic race he entered and by doing so believes he has set marks that Costa Rican skiers can aim for. One, now living in Germany, could meet the qualifying standards by the time of the 1998 Winter Games, Munoz says.

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