Previewing the Winter Olympics

Wall Street Journal sportswriter Stefan Fatsis discusses the upcoming Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy. He discusses the controversy over U.S. skier Bodie Miller, U.S. women's figure skating and Michelle Kwan and the little-known skeleton sledding event. The Olympic Games run Feb. 10-26.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Sportswriter Stefan Fatsis of The Wall Street Journal joins us now as he does on Fridays to talk about sports and the business of sports. Hi, Stefan.

STEFAN FATSIS (The Wall Street Journal): Hey, Robert.

SIEGEL: Let's stick with Bode Miller for a minute. The controversy seems to raise a question about what fans and sports organizers and sponsors actually want from their athletes.

FATSIS: Yeah, they want them to be different, of course. They want them to be iconoclasts, especially in these winter sports, like downhill skiing and snowboarding, that are essentially based on this notion of rebellion and risk. But they can't be too different, and if they stand out too much they run the risk of alienating the sponsors who are paying the bills.

SIEGEL: Onto a different controversy, the US Figure Skating Championships are going on this week in St. Louis. Looking ahead to the Winter Olympics, it wouldn't be the Winter Olympics without some drama or melodrama in women's figure skating.

FATSIS: No, it would not, and this week's drama is that Michelle Kwan is not skating. She's the nine-time US champion, of course, and she's never won a gold medal. She has a groin injury, but she's petitioned the US Figure Skating Federation for a medical waiver that would put her on the Olympic team based on her past performance. And the winner of the US Championships will automatically go, but the two other spots will be decided by the Federation. And after the short program, which was held earlier this week, Sasha Cohen is in first place, and Emily Hughes is in second. She's the younger sister of...

SIEGEL: Younger sister of Sarah Hughes.

FATSIS: ...Sarah Hughes, who won the gold medal in Salt Lake City in 2002. And we'll know who gets to go to Turin after the long program, which is tomorrow night, of course, in prime time.

SIEGEL: Onto a far less well-known winter sport that's enjoying a very nasty controversy. The event is skeleton.

FATSIS: Right.

SIEGEL: I didn't even know there was an event called skeleton.

FATSIS: Right, that's the event where the competitors slide face down on a tiny sled on the ice and goes around 70 miles an hour. And it got some good attention four years ago when Jim Shea won the gold medal. His father and grandfather had been in--had been Olympians also. Now the story is about a sexual harassment case, allegations against the coach of the team by some women sliders. Separately, you've got a male slider who was suspended for failing a drug test, a drug that can be used as a masking agent to block the detection of other drugs. But the drug is also found in the anti-balding drug, Propecia, which is what the athlete says he's used and has told Olympic officials that he had used in the past.

SIEGEL: If nothing else, all this has the effect of reminding us that the Winter Olympics are about to begin.

FATSIS: Yep, it's a big deal in most Europeans countries, of course, but not over here. The only time the US sports media tends to discover the national speed skating or bobsled championships is every four years right before the Olympics. And when they do, they discover that there are issues here involving the governance of these sports and good stories involving these athletes, and all of that in the run-up to the Games will help NBC, of course. The network has scheduled 416 hours of programming on broadcasting cable and that, of course, would be a record for a Winter Olympics which is what they set every four years.

SIEGEL: But even though the games are going to be in Italy in Turin, it doesn't appear that there's overwhelming interest in the...

FATSIS: No, it's not...

SIEGEL: ...Italians.

FATSIS: ...one of the European countries that's wild for most of these sports. Less than a month to the Games, organizers have sold only about 60 percent of the available tickets, and most of those have gone to sponsors, sports federations and other official types. Part of the reason is that no big Italian star has emerged like Alberto Tomba from a few years ago. And the Italian sports fans care much more about soccer, which is in season right now. There have also been budget problems with the Games, a projected shortfall of about $100 million, and that's led to cuts in promotion and spending.

SIEGEL: I said Turin, but actually a lot of people are not going to be saying Turin. They're going to be calling the city by its Italian name, Torino.

FATSIS: Torino. It's the first time actually that an Olympic city will be officially known by its native name. This has never happened before. It wasn't Roma in 1960, of course. For the city, it was about trying to change its image and get away from this industrial center, which is what Turin is. For the US media, it was a question of: What do we do? Turin, which is the accepted name, or Torino, which sounds so much better? And that's the route that NBC has taken. So for the 200 million or so fans that tune into the Olympics on NBC, Torino it will be.

SIEGEL: Sportswriter Stefan Fatsis of The Wall Street Journal, who talks with us about sports and the business of sports on Fridays. Thanks a lot once again.

FATSIS: Thanks, Robert.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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