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Admiring an Olympic-size pool of talent

I’m kind of lukewarm about the Super Bowl, World Series and even Gonzaga University basketball (I know, I know – blasphemy), but when it comes to the Winter Olympics, the world stops for me. This (and I consider it a singular happening) is my favorite sporting event of all.

Sadly, it comes only once every four years. Happily, it begins Friday.

For fun, here’s a brief Winter Olympics quiz. (Answers provided below.)

What American holds the record for most Winter Olympic medals?

Name the American who won medals at both the Winter and Summer Games.

What country has won the most medals at the Winter Olympics?

The Winter Olympics are the “other” Olympics, the games we don’t find as sexy or popular as the Summer Games, probably because the USA doesn’t dominate. There are a few high-profile events, but, let’s face it, the Winter Games are filled with a lot of odd sports that most of us either don’t know much about (like luge), or don’t understand (like curling, once described as a cross between bowling and housecleaning). That’s part of the fascination, that these athletic endeavors are kind of exotic – requiring all the athleticism of warm-weather sports, but many taking place out in the biting cold.

Not to denigrate the Summer Games, but the risk factor is a whole lot higher here – you can die doing some of these things. Lugers slide down an ice track on their backs, feet first, at 80 miles an hour, on something akin to a fancy Flexible Flyer!

Besides, we have several athletes from our own home state to root for this year, like returning Olympian Apollo Anton Ohno, the short-track speed skater from Seattle.

I love it that the relatively new Olympic events like Ohno’s and snowboarding’s half-pipe have created Olympic aspirations in kids, who are now hopping off their skateboards and onto snowboards and into ice skates to train to do incredibly ramped up versions of what they’ve been doing in parking lots at the mall and at skate parks all across the country.

I’m not so in love with all the hoopla and national chest-beating that accompanies the games, and I really hate the running scroll on the TV screen showing which country is ahead in the medal count; for me, that’s not what this is all about. Still, I will be riveted, watching as much of it as I possibly can. And I confess that part of my fascination likely comes from the fact that once, I got to see it in person.

Back in 1968, I was at the Winter Olympics in Grenoble, France. It was a larger-than-life world party like nothing I could have imagined. I was in the arena at the opening ceremonies when French President Charles de Gaulle welcomed the world to the games. I was in the auditorium when Jean-Claude Killy, France’s golden boy, was awarded his third gold medal in skiing, having swept the alpine skiing events. I have never, before or since, heard such utter joy at such loud decibels in all my life. I got to see the elegant Peggy Fleming skate, too.

Security was looser – it was before the tragic shootings at the 1972 Summer Games at Munich, which changed everything – and there was greater access to behind-the-scenes activities and to the athletes. At an event toward the end of the games, my husband and I were seated by and breathing the same air as Oleg and Ludmila Protopopov, the Russians who had just won the gold medal for pairs figure skating.

I remember being in the gallery at a biathlon event in which a Scandinavian athlete came into the shooting range after a long cross-country course. I watching him morph his whole demeanor – calming and regulating his breathing, paying attention to his heartbeat, and then shoot at targets. What a combination of skills – the lungs and legs for grueling cross-country skiing and the breath control, hand-eye coordination and steadiness to shoot at and hit a bull’s-eye at 50 meters. What must his training regimen be?

These are exotic things we don’t see in our day-to-day lives, athletically speaking. But every four years, when the world spotlight shines on them, these athletes, who train largely in obscurity, show us the best of themselves – driven by dedication, competitiveness, talent and heart. I hope we will be paying attention to all of them.

(Answers to the quiz: 1. Speed skater Bonnie Blair, six medals – five gold, one bronze. 2. Eddie Eagan, gold medal in boxing, light heavyweight, 1920; and gold medal in four-man bobsled, 1932. 3. Norway, with 239 medals.)

Voices correspondent Stefanie Pettit can be reached by e-mail at upwindsailor@comcast. net. Previous columns are available at www. columnists/.

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