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About Utah: Games’ glare brings skeleton out of closet

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In the latest example of the capability of the Olympic Games to magnify attention beyond all sense of scale, sort of like reflecting the sun's rays with a pocket mirror and starting a forest fire, there's the latest hot pre-Torino scandal.

It involves the skeleton.

Skeleton is an extreme form of sledding that involves riding what looks like a cookie sheet 70 miles an hour down a bobsled track.

I'm not implying it's easy or that it doesn't require a certain amount of verve and skill.

But it's not like it's well-known. You can't go down to the corner sporting goods store and buy a skeleton. Only about seven people in the world take it seriously. The sport didn't make its debut as a permanent Olympic event until four years ago in the Salt Lake Winter Games.

And yet, the Olympics being the Olympics, as it heads into its second go-around, skeleton already has not one, but two, pre-Games scandals.

In the past two weeks, the sport has been rocked by allegations of sexual harassment against coach Tim Nardiello and by a positive drug test attributed to Zach Lund, the world's top-rated men's slider.

The sporting press, which duly publishes all things Olympic related, has notified the world that both Nardiello and Lund are currently sidelined from the quickly approaching Torino Winter Games. Nardiello has said he will fight the harassment charges at an appeals hearing, while Lund insists the only drug he is guilty of taking is one that helps prevent male baldness. The problem, apparently, is that the product contains an ingredient that can also mask steroids and is thus on the banned drug list for athletes.

This is how it is in Olympia's glare: You can't even take male-baldness tonic in private.

But better to admit it — and stop using it — than be known as skeleton's answer to Jose Conseco.

"I'd rather be bald than be labeled a cheat," said Lund.

Skeleton's pains take on added proportion here in the place that is the granddaddy of Olympic scandals because of all the local connections.

Zach Lund is a native Utahn who grew up in Sandy, learned to ski at Alta, graduated from Judge Memorial High School and got hooked on skeleton when the track was built a decade ago at Utah Olympic Park.

Two of Nardiello's accusers, Tristan Gale and Felicia Canfield, also reside in Utah. Gale lives in Sandy and attended Brighton High School before she went on to win skeleton gold in 2002, while Canfield moved to Utah with her Air Force husband, studied for a law degree at the University of Utah and lists her hometown as Park City.

Also in the mix is local journalist Wina Sturgeon, who broke the Nardiello sexual harassment story in the New York Times.

And at least peripherally, there's Noelle Pikus-Pace of Orem, the top-ranked women's skeleton racer before a runaway bobsled broke her leg in Canada in October. Until the scandals surfaced, her attempt to recover in time for the Olympics was the sport's biggest story. This past week, in what is believed to be a skeleton first, Pikus-Pace was on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno."

But on Friday, Pikus-Pace's Olympic quest was dashed at a World Cup in Germany when she finished fifth and no other American women finished high enough (Gale was 13th) to gain the United States a second female berth in Torino. Barring last-minute changes, only top-rated U.S. slider Katie Uhlaender will perform.

A year ago, no one would have noticed. But in the Olympic glare, skeleton's ups and downs are everybody's business.

Lee Benson's column runs Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Please send e-mail to benson@desnews.com and faxes to 801-237-2527.