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Skeleton Key

An Olympic review, from The Beachwood Reporter's Turin bureau

At The Beachwood Reporter, our mission is not to debate the nature of what constitutes a sport. If someone invests time, money, and physical effort into something they can credibly claim to be athletic in nature, we'll gladly take their word for it. We do, however, reserve the right to question why the hell anyone would waste their time in certain pursuits. Hence, "skeleton," a certified medal-bearing Olympic event involving athletes flinging themselves down the side of a hill.

Most of us are familiar with skeleton and its sister sport, luge, from our many years in the amateur ranks--when we called it "sledding." The key difference between the two events is that while lugers ride sunny side up with feet forward, skeletationists propel themselves face-first lying on their stomachs. So to review: Skeletists sled, down a hill covered in ice. They run a bit, they lie down, and the angle of incline combined with the Earth's rotation on its axis carries them along. They go sledding.

You'd think the prone forms of highly-trained athletes would provide some compelling viewing, and if you can keep yourself from blinking for 58 seconds you might be right. The Olympic skeleton event comprises two runs down the same track used for luge and bobsled. The combined time of both runs determines the final standings. At the Torino games all six medal-winning performances took just over 12 minutes in total. This gave the three frantic television commentators assigned to cover the event barely enough time to introduce themselves, the venue, and each skeletater. Amidst the break-neck identifying, I did manage to learn a few points on proper skeletuvian form. Apparently, much like prom night, the ideal run requires you to keep your legs together against irresistibly strong forces. As soon as the skeletalist's feet drift apart, they become a drag and the track stops returning their phone calls.

I understand the draw of the skeleton. I really do. I remember the thrill of standing at the top of an icy hill, my body alive with anticipation, taking in one last breath of cold, clean air and picturing that perfect run in my mind. Knowing instinctively which way to lean, how much force to take into the curves, when to go flat-out on the steeper sections. And I remember the rush of winning, of knowing I not only beat my competitors but that I beat that mountain, I beat myself, I beat time and gravity and Mother Frickin' Nature. And then I turned nine. And frankly, I had better things to do.

Just when it seemed the skeletonian community was composed entirely of those creepy teenagers who were a little long in the tooth for the sled hill, the U.S. skeletonking delegation was embroiled in a double-barreled scandal. First, coach Tim Nardiello was suspended by the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation for not sexually harassing anyone, or not harassing them credibly enough, or maybe because he was dating a foreign skeletor, or maybe just because they felt like it. Then, America's best hope for skeletal glory, Utah's Zach Lund, was banned from the Games after testing positive for a masking agent contained in a hair-loss remedy. It appears that the icy hand of male pattern balding can douse the Olympic flame burning within even the greatest skeletonian. I submit that if the sexiness of your gold medal can be trumped by a chrome dome, your hair loss is the least of your worries.

With the top American contender focused on achieving 85% retention and moderate regrowth, it was left to 700-year-old Canadian fireman Duff Gibson to claim the gold. And to him I say: Duff, you're breaking my heart. A name like yours deserves so much more than a hill, a helmet and some gravity. Duff Gibson doesn't go sledding. Duff Gibson is the dark, edgy high school anti-hero who catches the winning touchdown pass with a half-smoked cigarette tucked defiantly behind his ear. Duff Gibson was a gunner with the 104th Airborne and later rushed the beach at Iwo Jima. Duff Gibson never buys a drink in Fort Wayne, Indiana, because everyone remembers the time Duff Gibson saved a little girl from drowning by diving shoes-'n-all into the icy Maumee River and dragging her to shore on his broad shoulders. Duff Gibson was Humphrey Bogart's body double for The African Queen. He rendered the glue for the first Kon Tiki expedition, changed the left rear tire for Earnhardt's winning run at Daytona, and left a jilted Greta Garbo standing at the altar. He's tough man to live with, but a tougher man to live without. He's many things to many people, but none of those things involves sledding. So, Duff, if you must fling yourself face-first down a mountain you'd better damn well win. Otherwise, the real Duff Gibson will hunt you down and kill you with his bare hands.

Upon receiving the highest honor in his sport, Gibson promptly retired.

In the women's event, Swiss mother Maya Pedersen won gold, followed closely by Britain's Shelley Rudman, a woman who received no funding from her national federation and had to take up a collection down the local pub to get to Torino. Her preparations were further hampered by the lack of a skeleton track anywhere in the rocky island nation she calls home. In fact, she only took an interest in the sport after watching it on TV during the Salt Lake City Olympics. Maybe that's the appeal of the little sledding event that could. It's all about optimism. Hell, maybe the blistering form I showed back in my Flexible Flyer days could yet carry me to glory. I'm pretty sure I could out-maneuver the pregnant German lady who placed fourth.

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Posted on Sep 21, 2020