Cross Country: One Person Against Wild

Primal Performance Art

The weather, for much of the time, has been rainy and snowy and miserable and awful and despicable in the Japanese Alps at the winter Olympics cross-country venue. Then sometimes it has deteriorated from these levels.

Doesn't matter. Nothing could be more wonderful than being up here in all this.

The reason is that nothing, neither weather nor general American incompetence, can take away from the glories of cross-country skiing. It defines what the Olympics are all about. In so many ways, it is the Olympics.

When the winter Games started in 1924 in Chamonix, France, cross country was there. In the 17 subsequent Olympics, cross country was there. If the Olympics were trimmed back sport by sport, surely cross country would be the last one left standing.

It is old-timey, reminding us of simpler days when there were no lifts, no heli-skiing, no artificial snow, no jet airplanes to competitions.

But there was always cross-country skiing, out among the trees, a kind of communing with nature on winter days.

Test of endurance, not technology

Certainly cross-country skis have improved with technology, but somehow it seems less intrusive than it does with the oh-so-high-tech luges and bobsleds. It's still basically just skis, boots, poles, and warm clothes.

Cross country is what we were. We'd go out for cross-country skiing, home in late afternoon for hot chocolate, settle down in front of a crackling fireplace, and read a classic Faulkner, Dickens, Joyce. Of course we read a classic because cross country is classic. That's how it was, wasn't it?

Too, there's no way to fake the physical conditioning that cross country requires. In some other sports - baseball, football, basketball - poor conditioning can be covered up, often by claiming injury.

But in cross country, there's not so much to hide behind. In the various races, the participants push and push, their lungs burn and their legs ache. And when they begin to think they can go no farther, they round a bend and there is another hill and up they go, attacking, clawing, never giving in.

A simple sport, a demanding sport, a sport not for the faint of heart or will.

A lonely sport, man and woman against nature. That, too, somehow seems the spirit of the Olympics, one person pitting self against the wild.

A brave sport that bows for no blizzard. Weather does not affect cross country. That makes it different from downhill, slalom, jumping, biathlon. All those sports seem more anxious to give in to the elements than to compete with them or against them whatever it takes. But not cross country.

A performance art

It occasionally is cancelled for lack of snow but that's it. Cross country is about performance; it is not about not performing. The other day, in a sometimes driving rain, the men's 15K free pursuit cross country was contested.

It was brilliant theater. Never mind that while the competitors were out there, somewhere in the woods, we didn't know much about how they were doing. But in our hearts, we knew they were battling the rain and their opponents with equal fury.

Most of all, there was Norwegian Bjorn Dahlie, the possessor of six gold medals and going for an Olympic record seven, the greatest cross-country skier in history. Yet, for perhaps the final two-thirds of the race, Dahlie found himself in too-close company with countryman Thomas Alsgaard.

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