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There’s a dark side to Games

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Three weeks from today, the Olympics will arrive in all their flawed majesty. We will see stories of strength and courage, skill and dedication.

As the TV commentators are sure to exclaim, we'll witness "the triumph of the human spirit."

At the same time, these are the Olympics. Courage and strength, sure. But we're already seeing the seamy side of the Winter Olympics, too: selfishness, greed and politics.

I'm not just talking about IOC delegates, either.

There are already at least two controversies brewing, fit for the most clamorous of television talk shows. They're not quite as juicy as Tonya Hates Nancy, but close.

In the past month, two of America's top candidates to win gold medals have been accused of being sneaky, at best. One has been charged by her former teammate of misleading and then replacing her in a quest for gold; another stands accused of cheating to help a friend make the Olympic team.

Angling for position, back-stabbing, duplicity . . .

Reminds you of office politics, doesn't it?

For months, the prevailing story of the 2002 Winter Olympics was how Salt Lake played the bidding game a little too adeptly. But eventually that story died down when nobody went to jail. So far it has turned out to be just another case of wooing IOC delegates with gifts and services. It may be distasteful, but it apparently isn't illegal.

But lately, other stories have surfaced. First, the pilot of America's No. 1 women's bobsled team, Jean Racine, abruptly informed brakewoman Jen Davidson that she was choosing another sledding partner. Racine's explanation was that by teaming with the less-accomplished Gea Johnson, she was gaining a better chance at a gold medal. At one time, Davidson and Racine were the best team in the world, but they had struggled lately.

Davidson said she was misled and shortchanged by her former best friend. But her formal grievance, asking for a hearing and a "race-off," was denied. It's likely Davidson, who spent the last 3 1/2 years working daily toward the Olympics, will end up watching on TV.

Another controversy erupted when short-track speedskaters Ron Biondo and Tommy O'Hare claimed two other skaters conspired to place a friend, Shani Davis, on the U.S. Olympic team. One of the accused culprits was superstar Apolo Anton Ohno.

Biondo and O'Hare say Ohno and teammate Rusty Smith purposely skated slowly and blocked others in the 1,000-meter trials last month in order to let Davis win. Ohno's explanation: He had already secured his spot on the team and didn't want to risk injury.

A hearing on that case is scheduled for Jan. 22-23.

However distracting these matters are, they won't slow the Olympics. Tonya Harding had Nancy Kerrigan whacked in the leg before the 1994 Olympics in hopes of securing herself a gold medal. As it turned out, the best either could do was Kerrigan's silver. But the soap opera only served to attract an enormous viewing audience.

Controversy never hurts TV ratings.

Plan on more conflict in the weeks ahead. Whenever you get several thousand athletes together, there are champions and heroes, but there are also cheaters, liars and sneaks. It's an Olympic tradition. Others may merely act boorish, like the American hockey players who trashed their hotel at the 1998 Games at Nagano.

For all our romanticizing about Olympic ideals, this is a package that should come with a clear warning: THIS PRODUCT CONTAINS HIGH CONCENTRATIONS OF SUGAR AND ARSENIC. USE WITH CAUTION.

I don't know for certain who's guilty in the aforementioned cases. We may never know the truth behind all of the allegations. But this much is certain: Some athletes are sure to disappoint us. That's life. Viewers should remember that athletes are no more noble or evil than anyone else. In sports, there are good people, bad people, manipulative people, back-stabbers, altruists and saints.

Some are as good as gold.

Others are only interested in going for it.


E-MAIL: rock@desnews.com