“Sport is a religion,” wrote the Frenchman Pierre de Coubertin, as if barking an order, arms akimbo, “with church, dogma, ritual.”
I hear him like a Joycean priest invoking heaven and hell, index finger poking the air on each of those last three words, “church, dogma, ritual,” which I found in his book, Memoires Olympique, published in 1931. Coubertin, a Jesuit educated historian and founder of the modern Olympic games, ends the sentence on that triple beat, like ready, set, go! And like the Olympic motto, “Faster, Higher, Stronger,” which he borrowed from a friend, a Dominican priest, who spoke the words in Latin, Citius, Altius, Fortius, to inspire his students in sport.
Sport, among other things, is worrying me the day after the Super Bowl, February 8, three days before the opening of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, BC, and minutes after my brother Bert arrives in Spokane, Washington on a flight from Denver. Bert is a Catholic priest, pastor of a parish in the inner city, and, at 58, nine years my elder. The age difference adds tension between us, not to mention that he is master of tennis and golf and veteran of the rough and tumble. He had little to do with the religious life of my childhood. Instead, in my memory, Bert is teeth chipped on a hockey rink and a shoulder separated in a rugby scrum. Even now, brown hair graying, he has surrendered little to age—six-feet-two inches tall, well muscled and fast, like when I was a teenager and saw him drive a tennis ball across the net and through a chain link fence.
Sport, Bert says, is “an addiction” for him, “my mental illness,” harsh words in that way Catholics are known for opening the wound of guilt to make it bleed. “I’m competitive,” he says, “God help me, that’s what I am.”
At the airport arrivals terminal I see the image of a speed skater on a sign for Alaska Airlines, tuft of dark hair staining his chin. This is trouble because Bert will likely chastise me for not knowing who the skater is, not to mention my ignorance of sport in general. This is why I’ve been reading up on Coubertin and the Olympic Games, which Bert has experienced twice: the winter games in Salt Lake City, and the summer games in Barcelona. Now he’s talked me into driving with friends to Vancouver to see a few events in the city and ski at nearby Whistler Mountain, where the alpine races will be held. Not the kind of road trip I’d have come up with on my own.
And Coubertin is not the kind of author I’d normally read, though in fits and starts I’ve found him compelling. As a boy in Paris he thrived in a Jesuit lycee, spending eight and a half hours a day in class, standard Jesuit rigor, an intellectual and social culture the French sociologist Emile Durkheim called “perpetual hand to hand combat.” Bert, too, attended Jesuit high school. Durkheim’s description, he says, “is right in the heart” of his own experience. Athletics were not primary at Coubertin’s lycee (as they were at Bert’s), but I believe the survival-of-the-fittest life of his Paris school days marked modern sport and in some way, me, which helps explain my nervousness about the next few days with my brother and the memories that will surface. Like Bert’s exasperation, eyebrows raised and mouth open, with my tennis game, all elbows and knees, slamming shot after shot into the net. And that speed skater on the poster, stretched out in racing form, strong and perfect, like my three older brothers and two younger sisters—stars on skis and road bikes, in baseball and tennis, basketball and volleyball. I love them but I am a distant brother, a sportophobe among athletes. I never made the team.
Hell, I never tried to join.
My family comes from Detroit, where Bert lettered in two sports at University of Detroit Jesuit High school, class of 1970, and where my father played basketball, class of 1943. Another brother is a retired professional ski racer. My youngest sister is a black belt kick boxer who attended college on a volleyball scholarship. A third brother finished college on two athletic scholarships, and a second sister is a tennis freak who met her husband on the court. Clearly, I dropped the gene.
I ask a baggage handler, “Who’s the skater on the sign?” He shouts, “Apolo Ohno!”—a name I’ve never heard—in time to spare me my brother’s needling until I realize I forgot to check the sports news before leaving the house near the university where I teach literature and writing.
“So, who won the Super Bowl?” I ask Bert, tossing his baggage in the car.
He laughs. “As if you care. Do you even know what teams played?”
Friday night in Vancouver we’re in a brewpub with friends, watching the opening ceremonies on a giant flat screen television. I’ve forgotten about Apolo Ohno—the United States’ most decorated Winter Olympic athlete—and Bert has not mentioned him. I take a notebook from my jacket and scribble something. The TV blinks frantically in a thousand colors, images too fast to comprehend. Bert, across the table, throws me a glance. “Weird extravaganza,” I write, “way over-the-top,” and that’s the point, a show for everyone, sports fans or not, or to borrow from Coubertin’s Olympic musings, the ceremonies are “the quadrennial celebration of the springtime of humanity.” The Canadians read his book. Suspended from cables, ski racers, snow boarders, and skaters in red suits like flying demons orbit a set piece of jagged mountains in a mix of high tech digital magic and theater to tell stories of Canada and the Olympics at once. The thing exhausts itself at the lighting of the Olympic flame when a rising “ice” column malfunctions as torchbearers, including hockey great Wayne Gretzky, wait with frozen smiles. As in nature, where ice melts too early and birds collide and perish in mid-air, the glitch makes sense.
In the brewpub the walls are heavy with photographs of people engaged in feats of skiing and hockey. I feel uneasy, like I don’t belong. I grew up in places where I didn’t belong—ski hills, ball courts, and ball fields, dropping things and tripping over my feet while pretending to be interested. Once, when I was seven, playing outfield on a public school baseball diamond in Detroit, this kid cracked one my way. I ran around looking for the ball while parents and players shouted until another player found it. The batter, meanwhile, crossed home plate. I can’t blame my eyesight, but that year my parents took me to the doctor who said I was nearsighted. I got square-framed brown plastic eyeglasses with thick lenses, which I liked because they gave me excuses. Books replaced baseball. Sweltering summer nights on the back porch of our house in Detroit, the city where I spent my first eight years, I “watched” Tiger baseball on a black and white TV with my father and brothers, a setting like a prayer meeting where every spoken word focused on the game while mosquitoes whined and sweat dribbled down my neck. We had no lights on the porch, just the black and white glow. While they watched, I read by flashlight. One summer it was Mutiny on the Bounty and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, stories that took me far away, though I still hear the man who called the Tigers’ games. When a player came to bat, he’d make a long loop of the guy’s name: “And it’s Allllll Kaliiiiiiine.” So, that was Detroit—home to Lions, Tigers, Red Wings, and Pistons—and a big network of Catholic schools like Holy Name Parish, where I started elementary school. Later, we moved to the sport paradise of Aspen, Colorado, with one small Catholic Church. There, I became a teenager outside formal Catholic education, but under the gaze of Catholic parents.
To me, religion and sport were ritual means of control. I hated both. I served six years as an altar boy, which was like playing the infield in baseball, first base or short stop, I could never hide, never let my mind drift like when playing the outfield or sitting in back pews of the church. I did my time in sports: four years of junior high school basketball, a season of football, a couple summers of baseball, and a half-decent high school career in cross-country running. I learned that in church as in baseball fixed rules govern the day. Playing the infield, I panicked at every hit and was likely to drop the ball, or in the case of assisting at mass, the holy water, which I did one day at the age of 12 during the symbolic washing of the priest’s hands before blessing the communion host, splashed it all over my white surplice robe. My nerves were raw in church, under the eyes of God, my parents, and the priest. Did they know I masturbated and was failing geometry? Did they know I doubted the piety of the priest, who was terribly overweight, and the people who knelt before him, like my mother, who drank too much, and my father, who kept silent. I wondered as well about the priest who vanished—one day I showed up to serve Sunday mass and there was this new guy standing in the sacristy, the room where priests keep their vestments and prepare services. We learned later that the old one left to get married. Anyway, it was on that first day with the new priest that I spilled the holy water. I moved too quickly with the small beaker, tipping it so the stopper fell out the top and rolled off the priest’s hands. I pulled back, fumbling so the water spilled on me, though I had enough left to finish the ritual. Another time I got sick during Christmas mass when the church was overcrowded and hot. Nauseous, I ran to the sacristy to vomit. The priests were not harsh men and never scolded me, but the rule of law in our house was participation in church. When I complained, my mother would say, in her north Midwestern twang, “Offer it up to Gaaad.”
I gave up on God long ago. Left Colorado, too. Our parents are gone. And I’ve avoided chances to reunite with my siblings, to ski together, share a holiday, the birth of a child. But Bert has forced the issue. If I wasn’t going to see the family, he’d come to see me, like it or not. So, I’m in Vancouver with my brother on the chance this might be fun.
Saturday afternoon, day one of the games, Bert and I are watching women’s hockey at the University of British Columbia’s Thunderbird Arena, near the apartment of a friend who is putting up six of us for this trip. We sit eight rows from the ice, behind our friends and side-by-side, a little awkward, like an atheist and true believer attending mass together. We’re at one end of the rink, side view of the goal, watching Switzerland, in red and white, vs. Sweden, in yellow and blue. I pull on a white, black, and maroon ski cap from the souvenir store, the same hat Canadian athletes wore at the opening ceremonies the night before. I feel giddy, distracted by novelty, like the boxy machine that bursts onto the rink during breaks in play. A man steers from a seat off the rear, as if tilling the earth on a tractor but really he’s leaving the ice shiny and smooth, like polished plastic. I’m thinking how much fun it would be to drive that thing.
“Did you see that play?” Bert asks.
Bert shakes his head. “It’s called a Zamboni.”
He raises his eyebrows, then his arm, fingers extended, as if to say, What’s the matter with you? He half shouts, “On the ice, that machine, it’s a Zaaam-BONI!”
I want to tell him to back off but the action starts and Bert’s head is moving with the puck, absorbed in the back and forth. On the surface, Bert is easy going. He has pale blue eyes and, like me, fair northern European skin. He greets everyone he talks to—waiters, gas station attendants, baristas, store clerks, and probably corporate CEOs—by asking their names. “Thank you Sasha,” he says after paying for coffee, as if he’s known her all his life. Bert does not wear his Roman collar, except around church and sometimes not even there. “Street clothes put people at ease,” he says. I’ve watched him say mass a few times He is sincere, full of humor and patience and makes time for everyone, which translates to a 70-hour workweek. On call, always. He spent four years in seminary in Detroit in the early 1970s as the city seethed over race and the Vietnam War, and finished his studies in Denver, where he was ordained. In Colorado, in summer breaks from their studies, Bert and my oldest brother, Chip (they are a year apart), worked construction together, ran a gas station in Silverton, CO, and worked in a hard rock mine. Later Bert served five years as a missionary in Colombia. He speaks Spanish and in Denver presides over a parish where Spanish comes in handy in a neighborhood marked by poverty.
During the hockey game Bert taps his fingers on his knees and runs a hand through his thick hair. I understand the moral and ethical passion of a priest working mean streets or risking body and mind in Colombia’s drug wars, administering last rights to a man shot dead on a roadway, but I don’t see how hockey, the most gratuitously brutal of sports, fits into his heart or why he curses like a sailor on the golf course or when his favorite football team, the Denver Broncos, fumbles a play, or why he gets impatient when I am not paying attention at games, like right now as I pull a notebook from my jacket pocket and feel his eyes under those raised brows.
Sweden scores the first goal after three minutes of play. Minutes later a Swedish player smacks the puck right between the skates of the Swiss Goalie. In front of us a whole row of people wearing red Canadian team jerseys jumps up and cheers wildly.
Bert nudges me with his elbow. “What are you writing?
In fact, I’m making my confession. The summer of 1975 when I turned 14 and Bert was 23, I begged him to let me caddy on a solo golf outing. I lied to get the job by telling him I wanted to learn the game. But all I cared about was a chance to drive a golf cart, to race across that open grass in a toy car. So, around the third hole, pedal to the floor on the fairway, I jerked the wheel back and forth on a slalom course like in those old 1970s Audi commercials boasting of “German engineering.” We hit a bumpy patch at full speed, 15 miles an hour, and Bert gripped my shoulder, shouting, “Pete, Pete, slow down!” His eyes opened wide and when he looked behind us his voice got really loud. “Stop, stop!” I did. His golf bag had fallen over, still partly hooked to the cart, but Bert’s clubs trailed behind, lying every which way across the grass and glinting in the sunshine.
“Oh, man,” I said, fighting the urge to laugh. “Sorry.”
Sweden beats Switzerland 3-0. And 3,000 people—speakers of German, Russian, Dutch, Japanese, English, French, Hindi, and Spanish stream out of the arena. I hear it all in a tangle of excited voices.
Bert and I are not talking.
“Sport,” Coubertin said, “must be the heritage of all men and of all social classes.” He has an ally in Nelson Mandela, a boxer before political activism landed him in Robben Island prison. Later, as President of South Africa, Mandela used the Springboks, his country’s much maligned rugby team, to unite a racially divided nation. “Sport,” he said, “is a viable and legitimate way of building friendship.”
I wonder, though, what sport does for siblings. I am thinking of something one of my other brothers, an all around athlete six years my elder, told me just before my freshman year: “You have a big reputation to live up to.” What got to me was not the impossibility of meeting that expectation, but the assumption that this “reputation” was my destiny, the model for my life, as if I was coming up through some royal line.
Sport has always been for me the business of the talented, the faster and stronger, like Apolo Ohno, and my family, Bert in particular. When it came to attending mass or knowing my catechism, he never pressured me, for which I am grateful. But in sport I worried he wanted to convert me to the same fanaticism that would cause me to jump from my seat and scream “What the fuck!” at a bad play, thrusting my hands in the air. Something I’ve seen him do. Such emotion at sporting events leaves me cold. Whatever is at stake, I’m not buying it, which brings me back to Coubertin and my discovery that we are kindred spirits. We used sport to rebel.
Coubertin, born of a noble family—servants of France in a long line judges, scholars, and military officers—embraced the “wrong” sports. “He rode horses and fraternized with peasants,” writes historian Richard D. Mandell. He took up boxing, “which reeked of lower-class brawling” and strained his relationship with his mother. I love this last detail because it marks something else we have in common—sports came between us and our mothers.
My freshman year in high school, 1976, I told my parents I was quitting basketball. I’d had enough. The only reputation I had to live up to, I decided, was the one I wanted for myself. But my mother put her hand to her heart, tears moistening her eyes. “Well, I don’t know,” she said. “Are you sure? We have a reputation.” There was a pause while I looked at the floor, thinking how much I hated that word, “reputation.” She added, “No, you can’t do this,” as if my participation on the team worked like the military draft, not something you can refuse. My mother, daughter of a poor Irishman who made a fortune in Ohio stone quarries, was raised in Catholic tradition, reinforced by the ideal of a large number of male heirs who could prove themselves by being stronger, by going farther, and moving higher at every level of life. She was an athlete in her own way. She bore six children and survived four miscarriages, the psychological impact of which I cannot imagine. She drank hard and chain-smoked. She died eight years ago, outliving my father by 22 years. And for weeks she refused to drop the matter of basketball and me.
My mother never knew what to make of the hyper youth culture of a high alpine resort. Neither did I. In 1971, Bert’s second year at seminary, we moved from Detroit in the wake of the 1967 riots, to Aspen, the kind of town where a man running for mayor publishes a campaign ad photo of himself charging shirtless up a mountainside. There was no escape from sports, from World Cup ski races and bicycle classics, or from mountain climbers, endurance runners, and Olympic icons like the French ski racer Jean Claude Killy, the biggest name in winter sports back then. But I was talking about basketball. “Basketball is good discipline,” my mother said. “You need to know how to get out there and fight.” And there was the reputation thing. “Your brothers all played.”
I’d tired of fighting, flailing about on the court, all arms and legs and no passion for the game. When I entered high school, I was six-feet-two-inches tall (I am 6’3” now) and rail thin, with stringy, floppy red-brown hair, and those thick-lens brown square plastic eyeglasses. In practice one day, I jumped for a rebound and landed elbow first on the head of a guard on my own team, a short, powerfully built player who could have broken me in pieces. He raged, fingers massaging his skull. “Chilson, you fucking klutz!”
On the other hand my father grinned when I told him I was quitting. He knew I hated the game. He put a hand on my shoulder. “Do what you want,” he said. “Just make sure you do what you love.”
I loved him for that, for letting me off the hook, not that I could escape the consequences. Weeks later, in town with my father, we saw the mayor on the street. The men exchanged small talk. Then the mayor looked at me. “Young man,” he said, “I don’t want to see you again unless you have a basketball in your hands.”
My father said nothing, leaving me to my anger at being pressured so baldly by a man who was more or less a stranger. I worried that my lack of athletic ability embarrassed my father, though he never showed it. And I wondered Why does this man [the mayor] care whether I play or not? But at that age I didn’t understand this was not about me. As my mother said, there was the family to think about. The mayor’s son, years ahead of me in high school, had been a basketball and football player, so there was a school team to think about and there was no one at the school taller than me. Four hundred-some kids, and I was the pinnacle of height. The point, I realize now, wasn’t so much that I had a reputation to uphold, but that if I didn’t play, I wasn’t carrying my weight.
Maybe that was too much responsibility to bear because I didn’t return to basketball, to the humiliation of the court, surrounded by screaming spectators, and where I never meshed with the tangle of team play. I compromised by taking up individual sports like long-distance running. I joined the school drama club, where I got my fill of teamwork putting on plays. This appeased my mother and I had what I wanted—a little control over my life. Coubertin never quite patched things up with his mother, but that’s not my problem. At the end of every school day I looked forward to a long run, alone.
Loners rule the Olympic games. Marathoners and sprinters and cyclists, speed and figure skaters, skiers, kayakers, and many more. I’m not forgetting team sports, but it’s people like Jesse Owens, Lindsey Vonn, Mart Spitz, Nadia Comaneci, and Peggy Fleming we remember best. We remember two African American runners, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, because they raised their fists in a lone civil rights protest from the medal stand at the 1968 Mexico City games. Apolo Ohno sells his image to Alaska Airlines and Bruce Jenner to Good Morning America. But can anyone, except the most devoted fan, remember a single person on the celebrated U.S. men’s hockey team that defeated the Soviets at Lake Placid in 1980? The so-called “Miracle on Ice.”
The victory is history, the players forgotten.
I realize this after the women’s hockey game, back at our friend’s Vancouver apartment where the seven of us are watching the Olympic news on television, consumed by the individual snowboarding and freestyle ski events in the rain on Cypress Mountain, outside the city. A favored female Canadian skier is shedding tears over her lost chance at a gold medal. Our women’s hockey match, the opening event of the games, gets barely a mention. Another team on the other hand clamors for attention. “Anarchists,” as the newscaster calls them, “wearing their trade mark black clothing” staged violent protests against homelessness and the cost of the Olympics ($6 billion). Smiling into the camera she reports, “A handful of anarchists smashed the windows of the Hudson Bay Company store in downtown Vancouver.”
We’re gathered on the sofa and the floor in front of the TV. When the newscast moves to the next Olympic highlight, no one says a thing, as if the protests suggest we’re enjoying ourselves in Vancouver at the expense of the poor. I’m not the only one in the room aware of this moment of existential crisis but I am not about to bring down the party by asking aloud if we should all feel guilty about being here.
Someone says, “Six billion dollars. Wwowww!”
Yes, for an orgy of sports over a dozen days in a Canadian city known for its beauty, ethnic diversity, and painfully visible homeless population. And what’s wrong with that? Coubertin would argue that the point of the Games is to get people off their butts, out of self-pity, moving any which way, engaging each other as spectators and athletes. In fact, from an Olympic purist point of view, what the anarchists are doing is not unwelcome. They are engaged, making their pitch, and competing for attention. It’s the Olympic way and that’s what excites Bert about sport, which, as he puts it, is about “the love of competition and working as a team.”
Bert works with the homeless. He counsels drug addicts and comforts the poor. I’m not going to put him on the spot about the anger at the center of these protests, not now anyway, in front of friends. He relaxes on the sofa in jeans and long-sleeve white polypropylene T-Shirt, glancing up at the TV, as he reads the Globe and Mail Olympics coverage. “Jezzzzus,” he says, “D’you guys hear about this guy killed on the luge track?’ Bert does not have to prove himself to me, or anyone.
Still, I want to know what he’s thinking about this anarchist stuff. I’m nervous about asking, worried that after this morning’s hockey game he’s more annoyed than ever with my lack of sports passion, and because to ask him about the protests might make things worse. So, in the afternoon we’re all walking the streets of downtown Vancouver, sightseeing in a city aglow with Olympic flags, street theater, and TV news reporters doing stand-up broadcasts in the street as I step up beside my brother.
“What up bro?” he says, putting his hand on my shoulder.
I tell him I’m looking forward to going skiing the next day at Whistler Mountain. We talk about the city, how beautiful it is, and joke that the anarchists have fled. I relax enough to ask him: “Do you think the anarchists have a point?”
Bert’s face lights up at the chance to talk. And we’re off, discussing athletes and anarchists as we stroll the streets of an Olympic city. But he doesn’t get close to my question about the anarchists until later that evening, after dinner downtown, when the lot of us gather at the Vancouver waterfront to watch the Olympic flame burn atop a tripod of support columns like giant ice blocks. The whole set-up stands behind a security fence watched by cameras and police.
A steady drizzle falls as Bert stands beside me, hands shoved in his jacket pocket. He says, “I love to ski and I don’t apologize for that.” He nods his head, thinking for a moment. “But you look at the time and money you spend on certain things in your life, and you have to find a balance, and I have never had the balance when it comes to sports, and the amount of time I spend watching sports and playing sports. It’s a struggle.”
Later, as we stare up at the flame, Bert says, “God this must cost a shit load.”
The truth is, as Bert likes to remind me, I have taken money in the name of the Olympics, “blood money,” he teases me. He’s right. In the fall of 1975, months before the Winter Olympic games in Innsbruck, Austria, I was 14 and by stroke of stupid luck landed a spot in a McDonald’s television commercial, along with ten other kids, including a free style ski jumper who was a senior at the high school. The rest of us were 8th graders.
A Los Angeles production company put out a casting call in Aspen schools for a commercial in a high alpine setting. The theme was winter fun, to be aired a year later during the Innsbruck games. In other words, this was a sports commercial. I, and nearly every student in the school system, answered the call. They interviewed hundreds of us over a week. I sat on a stool in front of a video camera behind which a pretty young blonde woman tried to make me laugh. Are you married? What is the square root of 55? Do you know the capital of Lichtenstein? Do you ski? Do you like to eat rutabaga? Then she said, “You’re awfully tall. Do you play basketball?”
I hesitated. “Um yeah, sort of.”
I like to think Coubertin would approve of my answering the casting call. He was, after all, a showman “big in energy and lucid in speech,” with a healthy streak of vanity, according to the historian Richard Mandell. “His mustache was splendid,” Mandell writes, “with sumptuous tendrils that swooped out to wisps at the end.” Coubertin’s self promotion project included hundreds of articles and 20 books on politics and history, many of which he published on his own dime, all part of an effort to paint himself, in Mandell’s words, “as a universal genius and organizational wizard.”
A week later they called me for a second interview at a Holiday Inn. My mother waited in the lobby. They didn’t like parents interfering with interviews. This time I sat in a folding director’s chair in front of a video camera while the director, a tall man with shoulder-length black hair and a deep tan, asked more questions. He said he liked the way I laughed on camera and that I had the right “Nordic” look, whatever that meant. He asked me about living in Aspen. I told him I liked to ski. Then he said, “Wanna be in my commercial?” like he was asking me join his team. I liked that. The blonde woman told my mother they would pay Screen Actors Guild wages and royalties, for a commercial that would show for years. A real pile of money.
The director asked another question, “Hey, Pete, I hear you play basketball.”
I’m pretty sure I rolled my eyes, thinking something like, Okay, here we go or Hey, Basketball is not a winter sport.
I said, “Well, yeah, sort of.”
He frowned and cocked his head. “Ahh, yer bein’ modest, Pete. I know you play on the school team. Can you balance the ball on your finger like this?” He tried and failed to spin the ball on his index finger. “You know, like Meadowlark Lemon?”
I’d never heard of Meadowlark Lemon.
“Come on, the Harlem Globetrotters?” He squinted. I could not believe my movie career was hanging on basketball. Then he said, “That’s ok. We can work with this.”
We filmed a scene on a street in Aspen one sunny cold November morning just after dawn. The director tried over several takes to get me to spin the ball on my index finger while walking with my books under my arm, wearing sneakers, jeans, a flannel shirt, jean jacket, and ski cap. No gloves. “Smile,” the director shouted, “pleeeaaaassse smile.” He watched, gloved hands stuffed in the pockets of a puffy red down jacket while his crew of lighting, camera, and sound people waved their arms to keep warm. When I scooped up the basketball I’d dropped during another failed take, he folded his arms and studied me for what seemed like minutes, like I was a piece of clay. Finally, he shook his head and told me to “go somewhere and practice.” I put on a heavier jacket and took the ball behind an equipment truck where no one would see me. I heard him say, “JeSUS Christ! Tall kid like that should be able to play basketball.” I felt I’d been unmasked, like some kind of cinematic plagiarist and the director was shouting, “Impostor, impostor!” I wanted to throw the ball at him. Standing on the sidewalk and glancing around to be sure I was alone, I tried for all I was worth to spin that damned thing on my index finger.
When he called me back I’d made no progress. We shot the scene anyway. “Okay, Pete,” he said, clapping his hands, “just toss that ball in one hand and strut on down the street like you’re Meadow Lark Lemon and you’re going to school.”
The commercial came out in February 1976 in time for the Olympics. I’m there with a bunch of kids, skiing, sledding, throwing snowballs, eating Big Macs and fries. I have my solo scene, walking that street, tossing a basketball in one hand. The ad ran four years and paid half my college education.
The funny thing about that commercial is that I can go to You Tube and bring it all back. I can superimpose that version of myself onto memories real or imagined. Like a story Bert told me of something he witnessed one afternoon in the fall of 1968, when he was a junior on the high school football team. The starting and second-string squads were on the practice field, drilling plays in one corner and agility exercises in another. The coaching staff spread out among the players while the head coach, using a bullhorn, directed operations from a perch high in the bleachers. “Short, wiry guy,” Bert said, “Little Napoleon.” He took a deep breath and explained what happened next.
“There was this kid a year behind me, a sophomore, tall kid, skinny, uncoordinated. He couldn’t perform the drills very well. All of a sudden, we heard the head coach shouting through his bullhorn, ‘Stop, everybody stop!’ And he comes running down out of the bleachers and across the field, everybody’s watching, the players, the coaching staff, and he runs up to this kid and screams at him, ‘Get down in the stance,’ meaning, you know, a three point football stance, bent over, one hand and two feet on the ground, a hand on your knee, and he kicks him right in the butt, yelling the whole time.”
For me, it’s not hard to imagine the shape and depth of that football player’s humiliation and fear. I think of young Stephen Dedalus in James Joyce’s novel Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, absorbing his Jesuit education in a manner most unlike Coubertin, his mind in turmoil after a priest’s lecture to him and his mates at Clongowes Wood College in Ireland, reminding them of “the four last things” in life: “Death, judgment, heaven, and hell.” Stephen cringed “as the hoarse voice of the preacher blew death into his soul.” I wonder as well, would Coubertin have approved of a coach kicking a player? I picture this short wiry Frenchman with a broad and thick mustache, bringing the coach to his senses. “My dear man, Coubertin says, citing his own book, “for each individual sport is a possible source for inner improvement.”
The kid on the football field must have been about 15 years old. I picture him tall and skinny, just like Bert said, swimming in too-large shoulder pads and helmet, fumbling drills and forgetting plays, knocked to the ground at every turn. I think of that kid because I know him like myself. Me, who played one semester of public school football in 5th grade and quit after being knocked senseless one day by a boy much broader and stronger than I. Yet that coach from back in 1968, well, I’ve never met him, but I know him, too. I imagine a stout, muscular man with thinning dark hair, graying a little, his face too red from sun or alcohol. He’s wearing a gray T-shirt, khaki pants, and sneakers as he bounds down the bleachers, whistle bouncing off his chest, clipboard in hand. He runs up to this kid shouting all kinds of things, like “What’s the matter with you” or “What the hell do you think you’re doing”, or likely worse, calling him a “pussy” maybe, before ordering him to “get down in the stance” before launching that kick—think about this—before this grown man stopped, screamed who-knows-what, ordered the kid into position, and arranged himself behind the boy to kick him. Did he do a kind of rabbit kick or did he wind up like a field goal kicker and give it every thing he had? Either way, that kick must have taken the better part of half a minute to set up. It was pre-meditated. My imagination shifts to wishful when another coach with real balls, rushes up to grab the head coach by the shoulder, shouting, “That’s enough!”
But that’s fantasy. Nothing like what really happened. No one, no student or coach, according to Bert, uttered a peep of protest.
I never witnessed nor have I been the subject of such abuse in sport. Maybe it’s age or reading a frustrated French sportsman that has helped me see that sport is not about me, or about Bert, or even Apolo Ohno. Sport is about the rest of us who happily muddle along, aware that we do not measure up as we stumble through tennis, hockey, and curling. We fall on the ski slope. We try to be better, more faithful. We polish our game. We flock to great temples of sport to watch and curse, flipping through rulebooks. Call it Church. We memorize game statistics, wave team pennants, and stand for the national anthem. Call it Dogma. We cheer for our favorite teams and sing fight songs or refrains from Rock classics. “We will, we will, ROCK YOU!” Call it Ritual. We hope it all means something and to somehow enjoy ourselves.
This is what I’m telling myself the day after the hockey game, at Whistler Mountain, where Bert and I are skiing with our friends and hoping to see some Olympic alpine events. I’m riding the lift with Bert, who’s arguing with a young French Canadian about what regions have the best snow. “I’ve skied Colorado,” the Canadian says, “I have been to Aspen and Vail and they don’t impress me. The snow is so dry and light,” he complains.“It has no substance.” He speaks French accented English, drawing out his soft consonants, which oddly gives his argument weight—“The snewww ees seww dry and light. Northwest snow is better, there is more moisture. You can dig your edges into it.”
The Canadian wears wraparound shades and generous dark stubble on his face. There is no arguing with this man about snow or anything else, but he doesn’t know there is no arguing with Bert either. I want to say, Give it up guys, or it’s pistols at dawn. But Bert isn’t going to get the upper hand here because he actually listens. The Canadian is righteous and annoying, though I love his critique of Colorado snow because it’s getting under Bert’s skin. I see Bert’s blood beginning to heat: the arched eyebrows and open mouth. His eyes wide as if he hasn’t heard anything so outrageous in his life. He keeps drawing his breath to speak, but the Canadian cuts him off, raising his voice. He waves his hand dismissively and says, “Colorado is overrated.” I bite my lip and look away.
“Well, I don’t know about that,” Bert says. “Colorado has the best snow in the world.”
The Canadian doesn’t miss a beat. “That’s a matter of opinion, don’t you think?”
On the last point, I agree with the Canadian, as much as I’d love to flick those expensive shades off his face. The snow at Whistler feels as fine beneath my skis as any snow I’ve been on. Two feet of snow fell the night before, forcing Olympic officials to cancel the day’s alpine events while volunteers on skis and in snow machines groom the racecourses. They’ve been working through the night under powerful lights strapped to trees and lift pylons or mounted on steel frames thrust in the snow. Bert gives up on the Canadian and nudges me, pointing at a team of snow packers on skis. We smile at each other and I recall one of the few spectator sports events I’ve ever enjoyed, watching Jean- Claude Killy win the giant slalom at Aspen Highlands ski area in 1973, the last race of his career. I was there because Bert insisted on it. We got up at 5 that morning to help the ski patrol pack parts of the course too steep for snow cats. The ski patrolman led ten of us down the run, pumping our skis up and down as if running in place, packing fresh powder. Around 9 a.m. he handed us passes for the day. Bert and I skied free, homemade sandwiches in our backpacks, checking on reports of who would make the giant slalom finals so we could be there to watch. Killy, at 29, suave and calm, was a hero even to me. When he talked to TV reporters, he always seemed amused, as if he had other things on his mind and I liked to imagine he was thinking, Hey guys it’s only a sport. He’d already declared this would be his last race whether he made the finals or not, which, of course, he did.
When the time came, Bert and I stowed our skis near some trees and stood in a thin line of spectators beside the orange mesh fencing about two thirds the way down the course. When the racers whooshed by—Killy making his turns with a stiff upper body, working only his legs and ski poles—Bert lifted the mesh and I ducked onto the course to nab a blue nylon gate flag, which hangs in my house today, the only sports trophy I own.
When we get off the lift, the Canadian skis off, ignoring Bert’s, “Have a great day!” and I follow Bert and our friends down a catwalk. But when I round the corner, they’re gone, as if off a cliff. I stop at the end of the catwalk, fresh snow around my knees as I lean on my ski poles, staring over the edge of a cornice and down into a double black diamond run that I suspect has just swallowed my ski partners. I’m worried about breaking my neck on the underside of this snowy lip and about losing face if I take an easier route, which strikes me as the best alternative. So I ski on, not over the lip but along a ridge and down a side run I thought would take me to a ski lift where we’d all agreed to meet. But Whistler Mountain boasts some 200 runs, and after a couple of miles of skiing, I realize the lift is someplace else and I have no idea where I am. It’s not being lost that worries me, but that Bert’s going to be disappointed I didn’t take the plunge.
My cell phone rings and I slide to a stop, fishing the phone from my jacket pocket and dropping it in the snow. I remove my glove and pick it up still ringing to see Bert’s number flashing on the screen. “Bert,” I shout into the phone, but there’s no reply. I call him back but the connection is gone. I keep on going with the phone inside my glove resting in the palm of my hand, down this run and that, zigzagging the mountain, mile after mile. My phone rings again and this time I hear Bert shouting, “Pete, Pete, are you there?” I stand in the middle of the run, shouting back, “Bert?” but we’re not hearing each other. I push off, skiing in and out of dense fog and sudden snow squalls, wondering what Bert is going to say. Finally the dark frame of a ski lift loading area appears out of the weather like a wrecked ship. The line is empty except for a ski patrolman in a sky blue jacket with the Olympic rings across the back above a white patrol cross. He carries racecourse flagging strung on nylon cord around his shoulders. We board the lift together. My phone rings as I settle in. I answer and hear nothing.
The patrolman slips his ski poles under a thigh and removes his helmet and goggles, rubbing a gloved hand over sweaty, thinning hair, graying at the sides. I want to ask him for a flag but think better of it. His face is blotchy and puffy, his eyes bloodshot. He hooks the helmet to his poles and rests his head back. “I’ve been on this mountain sixteen hours,” he says. “If it snows tonight I don’t know what we’ll do.”
I tell him there’s nothing in the forecast, trying to be helpful, but the patrolman sighs and shakes his head. “The weather in these mountains has its own schedule,” he says. “We could have a major blizzard here in the next hour.” He pauses and hangs his head, chin over his chest. After a minute, he appears to sleep but then he says, “I don’t know what I’m complaining about. I ski these mountains for a living.”
The lift carries us through the trees and emerges over open snowy meadows with the top lift shack in sight a quarter mile above. My phone rings again and when I open it Bert is shouting my name, “Pete, Pete, are you there, are you okay?” His voice is high pitched and I brace myself. He shouts, “Where are you?”
“I’m fine Bert,” I say, quietly. “Just got a bit lost. I took a wrong turn. I’m on a lift.”
This time Bert replies. The tension is gone. He’s not shouting. “I’m glad to hear your voice, bro. I was worried. That’s one of the hardest runs I’ve ever skied. We thought you were buried in the powder up there.”
“I didn’t have it in me to ski that run, Bert.”
“No sweat, Bro. We’ll see you in a bit,” he says. “You and I still have a few runs to ski together.”
“Yeah, okay, I’ll see you at the top.” I shut the phone off and stare at it, feeling ashamed. All the way down the mountain, I’ve been preparing for an argument, cell phone in my glove. But Bert has revised the script.
The patrolman says, “Must be a brother.”
I smile. “Yeah, my brother.”
I’m still holding the phone in my hand. The relief in Bert’s voice has startled me and I realize what I heard in those mangled calls coming down the mountain wasn’t anger, but fear. I still hear Bert even after the call is over. The tightness is gone and the tone loose, as if Bert’s fingers are easing up on the phone.