We Just Want to Belong

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, February 1994

We Just Want to Belong

On the Island of Misfit Sports, everybody's a loser
By Todd Balf

The campaigning began six years ago, moments after Lillehammer won the bid to host the 1994 Winter Games. "We got phone calls, letters, and videos," says Martin Burkhalter, director of sports for the Lillehammer Olympic Organizing Committee. "We heard from just about everybody." "Everybody," of course, is the wannabes--competitors in those quirky games on the outer fringes of the winter-sports scene who are just dying to be taken seriously.

It isn't solely up to the host organizing committee to grant Olympic privileges. First the International Olympic Committee must sign off: A sport must be "widely" played on three continents, be capable of drawing standing-room-only crowds, and play well on television. It must also display what your average IOC member recognizes as "a high degree of athleticism." (Making matters worse, starting this year, demonstration and exhibition sports are no longer admitted; it's full medal status or nothing.) And even if a sport passes this gauntlet, more subjective considerations on the local level can derail it: The wannabe may be out of luck if the hometown team doesn't have an athlete capable of winning a medal in the event. Of course, none of the above stops folks from trying.

Herewith a brief visit to the Island of Misfit Sports. You can bet its inhabitants are busy licking stamps in hopes of becoming worthy Olympians by the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan.

What is it? Same curved sticks, same polyurethane ball, same basic rules as field hockey--but played on ice, without the kilts. Unlike ice hockey, there's no checking, no slashing, and no brawling. You see a lot of skating, though. The rink is huge, the size of a football field. It's fast skating, friendly skating...maybe too much skating. Wildly popular in Scandinavia, Siberia, Kazakhstan--and greater Minneapolis, thanks to a proselytizing Swede named Gunnar Fast.

The pitch: A Norwegian favorite, bandy has a fairly large following on European cable TV, perhaps because of the telegenic bright-orange ball. Also, the logistics would be a cinch; the Hamar Olympiahall, the snazzy new indoor speed-skating rink, is bandy-ready, and the Norwegian Bandy Federation even offered to pay all the expenses for a round-robin tourney. "Bandy isn't the biggest sport in Norway," pleads the NBF's Tor Audun Sørensen, "but it is a hundred years old."

The problem: In a survey of 400 American sportswriters, a devastating 97.5 percent said they could do without bandy on the Olympic program. By comparison, 60 percent wanted to add women's ski jumping, a sport that doesn't exist on a competitive level. Undaunted, the Norwegian Bandy Federation is spreading the word. "We're coming to America!" says Sørensen. The recently announced site for the 1995 World Bandy Championships is none other than Roseville, Minnesota. Pack your bags, Marv Albert.

Ice Boarding
What is it? A lot like yacht racing, but practiced on ice. Steering a rig that resembles a skateboard mounted with a windsurfing sail and four steel runners, ice boarders race head to head out and back over a frozen lake. In perfect conditions--glass ice and 40-mph winds--one can reach speeds greater than 60 mph. Popular in Germany, New England, and Hamilton, Ontario.

The pitch: Thrills and chills. "Acceleration, maneuverability, and speed are the ingredients," wrote an energetic Connecticut ice boarder named Chad Lyons to Olympic organizing officials in Lillehammer. "Put it all together and voilà....It really is a traffic stopper! I know of no other type of ice vehicle that does this!"

The problem: The sport has no international federation, which alone is grounds for disqualification. "An interesting idea!" replied the IOC, but no, thanks.

Ski Orienteering
What is it? Contestants wearing cross-country skis use a compass and a map to navigate their way to various checkpoints along a forested course. The racer must make some 250 correct "choices" to zigzag to victory. Played in the United States, but hotbeds are Sweden, Finland, Russia, and...Norway!

The pitch: "Ski-o, more than any other winter sport, is a total ski sport," wrote Magne Hagen, chief of the Norwegian Orienteering Federation, in a detailed proposal to organizing officials. Ski-o would dovetail nicely, he added, with Lillehammer's emphasis on an ecologically friendly Olympics: "Nature itself--the forest and the fields--is the arena of ski-o."

The problem: Television. Having athletes constantly disappearing and reappearing in the woods doesn't exactly translate into riveting footage. To overcome this perceived drawback, the International Orienteering Federation proposed an electronic tracking system in which skiers would wear bib-mounted transmitters that show their positions as blinking dots on the TV screen. Again, "an interesting idea," noted the IOC in its rejection letter.

Sled-Dog Racing
What is it? "It's not the the same thing as the Iditarod," say touchy sled-dog federation officials, whose sport is often compared with the famous 1,049-mile race in Alaska. The distances are shorter--three to 25 miles--and the speeds are twice as fast, up to 20 mph. Popular in Canada and parts of the northern United States.

The pitch: Two tireless women from Idaho flew to Australia to lobby the IOC general assembly. Among other things, the pair argued that the Olympics could use another "animal" sport; right now, there's just the equestrian event in the Summer Games. Also, women tend to be as strong as men in this event, so mano a mano intersex competition would be a certain draw.

The problem: Rabies. Norway has no documented cases of rabies, and it doesn't want any. For that reason, any dog crossing the border must remain in quarantine for several months. With as many as 25 dogs on dozens of teams, the logistics would be complicated. The IOC did throw the sled-dog contingent a bone, however. Pooch-drawn sledges will shuttle IOC VIPs from venue to venue, an environmentally friendly idea and a great opportunity for mushers to schmooze with the dream makers.

Barrel Jumping
What is it? Just like the long jump, but with ice skates. Skaters loop the rink a couple of times, accelerating to 30 mph, then leap acrobatically in an attempt to clear a string of fiberglass barrels laid side to side. Even on "successful" jumps, you land on your keister, so football helmets and spine pads are mandatory. The world record is 18 barrels, set by Canada's Yvon Jolin more than a decade ago. Popular in Montreal, northern Michigan, and small pockets in England.

The pitch: In 1992 a representative from the Canadian Barrel Jumping Federation flew to a winter-sports festival in Lillehammer to surprise Olympic officials with a live demonstration.

The problem: Unfortunately, the demonstration was canceled by nervous officials, who may have feared a personal injury lawsuit. However, the representative was allowed to show a video montage of barrel jumping highlights. "It appeared to be a brutal sort of sport," recalls Lillehammer Olympic Organizing Committee spokesman Tor Aune. "Nobody really makes it. Everybody seems to fall on their backside."

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