Take my word for it, this is going to be one of the best years for Olympic losers. Indeed, as a group, they will be more exotic than the winners, more glamorous and probably more charming and definitely better for belly laughs.
In one sense—a mathematical sense—any Olympics is almost entirely about losing and losers. Figure it out. Roughly 1,750 competitors are entered in the Calgary 1988 Winter Games, but there are only 96 gold medals to be awarded—and only 35 of those are individual medals; the rest are duplicate golds awarded in team sport events, like the 30 golds set aside for the winning hockey team. It requires only simple arithmetic to realize that when the Olympics are over, there will be more than 1,600 losers—or that losers will outnumber winners by a ratio of roughly 17 to one.
But there are losers and there are losers. Many Olympians in Calgary will be defeated by close, respectable margins. These are world-class athletes who will be nosed out by other world-class athletes; athletes who competed with the firm conviction that they really had a chance to finish No. 1 in their event. For some, a silver or a bronze medal will help to ease the pain of this kind of losing—and in Calgary a total of 192 second-and third-place medals will be awarded. And finishing in, say, the top 10, 20 or 30 will be satisfying for many other expected losers—up-and-coming rookies, over-the-hill veterans, your perennial mediocrities, etc.
That is losing.
As for losing, that is done by the hapless and the hopeless, competitors who never in their wildest dreams considered the possibility of coming in first. Or fifth. Or in the top 75%. Yet, in the Olympic Games of the late 20th century, losers can be elevated to levels of attention that even some winners might envy. You see, with losing there is often an inverse—to say nothing of perverse—ratio at work: The more inept or absurd the loser, the more interesting he becomes for the media.
You may recall that at the 1984 Winter Games in Sarajevo, the press's favorite loser was a luger who represented Puerto Rico. He was George Tucker, then 36, an overweight but quick-witted doctoral student at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. When he was introduced by a Yugoslav public-address announcer as "George Turkey," Tucker murmured to a reporter, "The man knows more English than he lets on." Tucker told the press that he figured his rate of completions down the luge run without a wreck was about 75%—"good for a quarterback, but bad for a luger." He finished 30th of 30 entries, and he got a lot more press in the States than Paul Hildgartner, the Italian who won the gold medal.
Another '84 loser who was given generous quantities of ink and TV time was the Egyptian Alpine ski team, one Jamil Omar Hatem Abdulalem Jamil El Reedy, then 18, a resident of Plattsburgh, N.Y. El Reedy let it be known that he had trained for his Olympic races by spending 40 days alone in a scorpion-infested cave in Egypt's Western Desert, enduring a traditional rite of passage that his coach-father insisted upon. El Reedy told the press that he had been frightened of the creatures in the cave but that the experience had been good because "I learned that the only security is in the mind." He added that he was a little tired of jokers who asked him if he had trained for the Games by sliding down the pyramids. He finished 60th out of a field of 60 in the downhill, 46th out of 47 in the slalom, and failed to complete his first run in the giant slalom and was thus eliminated.
Also among Sarajevo's momentarily famous losers were Erroll Fraser, a black speed skater from the British Virgin Islands who was 40th of 42 in the 500-meter and 42nd of 43 in the 1,000-meter events; La-mine Gueye, a Senegalese downhill skier who is a model and actor in real life and finished 51st in the downhill (14 seconds behind the winner); Cypriot skier Lina Aristodimou, who came in last in both the slalom and giant slalom (she was not entered in the downhill); and Lebanon's four-man ski team, which barely got out of battle-torn Beirut before the airport was occupied by Shiite militiamen and could do no better than a 39th (of 47) in the slalom and 58th (of 76) in the Giant Slalom.
In Calgary there will be a similar assortment of odd and inept Olympians who will attract a similar amount of antihero worship. El Reedy is planning to give Egypt a representative in the downhill one more time, and Tucker will once again be luging for Puerto Rico.
Out of the same odd bag of winter sportsmen who hail from tropical islands comes Jamaica's bobsled team. It is made up of native-born Jamaicans, some of whom had never seen snow or stood next to an honest-to-god bobsled until August. The team sponsor, U.S. business consultant George Fitch, got the idea that there might be bobsled talent in Jamaica while watching the annual pushcart derby in Kingston last August. This event, unique to Jamaica, consists of two-man teams plunging down a steep, winding, mile-long course at breakneck speeds (up to 40 mph) in four-wheeled pushcarts which are ordinarily used to sell things like sno-cones and tomatoes along city streets. The leap from careening pushcarts to Olympic bobsleds somehow seemed logical to Fitch, and just months after he saw the race, Jamaica had its bobsled team. Even as you read this, a crew of tough, fast Jamaicans is in Lake Placid making its final training runs. There are other exotic Olympians on the agenda in Calgary—e.g., a bobsled team, skiers and lugers from the Virgin Islands, a cross-country skier from Fiji, Alpine skiers and a cross-country skier from Guatemala, and a luger from the Philippines.