Despite Stumbles, Signs of Sportsmanship in Turn

One week into the Winter Olympics and so far, at least for the American team, it's been more the agony of defeat than the glory of victory. But sports columnist Geoff Calkins says there have been signs of sportsmanship at the Olympic games.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Ten days into the Winter Olympic games and so far, for most of the American team, it's not been pretty. Pre-Olympic star Bode Miller is zero for four thus far in his competitions. He placed sixth today in the giant slalom.

The women's hockey team's stunning semi-final loss to Sweden over the weekend knocked them out of gold medal contention. They won the bronze medal in a game today. And snowboarder Lindsey Jacobellis' tumble after attempting a fancy trick at the last jump gave her a silver medal, not the gold that she would have had had she not decided to hot-dog it just a little bit.

And with the so-so performances and me-me attitude, the Olympic spirit may seem as out-moded as, well, as an ice dancer wearing a conservative costume. But yesterday during a cold and snowy day in Turin, sports writer Geoff Calkins found that sportsmanship is still alive and well at the Olympic games.

Geoff Calkins joins us now from Turin. He, of course, writes for the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Nice to have you back on the program today.

GEOFF CALKINS (Sports Columnist, Memphis Commercial Appeal): Thanks for having me, Neal. I appreciate it.

CONAN: Now, this involves a Canadian skier in cross-country. Tell us the story.

Mr. CALKINS: Yes, it was my privilege to tell this happy tale amidst all the gloom. There's a skier by the name of Sara Renner, Canadian skier, cross-country skier, and they were competing, she and her partner, Beckie Scott, in something called the cross-country team sprint.

Now, what that means is they actually do six laps around an oval, alternating laps. And Sara Renner was in the midst of her second lap when, horror of all horrors, her ski pole snapped. And so she was actually heading up an uphill portion of the course.

And if you are a cross-country skier without a pole, you are just like a canoeist without a paddle.

CONAN: Or a water skier without an engine.

Mr. CALKINS: Exactly right. You have, you're toast. And so there she was, watching the Olympic dream slip away. She's been to three Olympics, has not medalled in any and she employs to medal here, when all of a sudden a man she described later as a mystery man, handed her his ski pole. He was alongside the course.

It was a men's pole, so it was slightly longer than her pole, but it was enough to get her around to the transition area where she handed off to Beckie Scott. And Beckie Scott picked up the pace and they ended up winning a silver.

So, it was happiness all around. And then, however, and this is truly what makes it a magnificent story, is we discovered the identity of the mystery man, who happened to be the Norwegian team's coach named Bjornar Hakensmoen.

CONAN: Wasn't his team in that...

Mr. CALKINS: He handed her a pole. What's that?

CONAN: Wasn't his team in that same competition?

Mr. CALKINS: That's exactly it. Not only was his team in the competition, in Norway, cross-country is it. I mean, it is essentially the national, not only transportation system but it's the national sport.

So, his own team was in there. And they ended up finishing fourth, of all things. So in effect, I don't think there's much doubt about it, by handing the ski pole to this Canadian skier, he knocked his own team off the medal stand.

Now, if this were the States, you might imagine that you'd be receiving death threats and complaints and all sorts of things. And he is genuinely, I talked to him by telephone, genuinely mystified that anyone would ever have thought that he would have acted differently. He said, of course, he said, I saw a woman in trouble. She needed a pole. I gave her my pole.

It is evidently somewhat the ethic in cross-country that they help each a good deal more than they do in some other sports. But it's not so common that people haven't been moved to celebrate this gift.

Sara Renner herself bought a bottle of wine for the coach. The Norwegian Embassy in Ottawa has been deluged in flowers and bouquets. He has received email after email after email of gratitude.

The head of the Canadian Olympic Committee sent an official letter of thanks. And so it really has been a happy story all around.

CONAN: We're talking with Geoff Calkins of the Memphis Commercial Appeal in Turin, Italy. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And all we need to find out now is that Sara Renner went home at night and threw a bag full of syringes out of her hotel window.

Mr. CALKINS: No, that -- you're looking at the dark side of things. The Austrians, who are caught up in this syringe gate with dramatic raid of their lodgings -- this is the cross-country and biathletes. Their lodges were raided.

And then the Austrian coach fled back to Austria and took a nap and was then apprehended. The Austrian's actually had it rebounded with a fairly happy day today, you'll be glad to know. They won three medals in the super G. A woman won the super G from Austria. The giant slalom was won by an Austrian, and the team jumping was also won by an Austrian.

So, it was actually a good day for Austria. It's the gloom that was created by these, this doping raid.

CONAN: Yes. And I think that coach who fled the scene into Austria has now checked himself into a psychiatric institute, so.

Mr. CALKINS: Well, things get more and more interesting. I actually thought that the breaking news of the day over here was first, and I don't know if we talked about this in our previous conversations, but the flying tomato, Shaun White, the American snowboarder, after he won his gold, he came out and said that he really wanted to me Sasha Cohen and something of a crush, and, as he revealed us around Valentine's Day, something of a crush on Sasha Cohen.

Sasha Cohen was made available to the media today. And she allowed us how she had heard that Shaun White, the flying tomato, was interested in meeting her, that she looked forward to meeting him at the closing ceremonies, and, in fact, that she liked, had a fondness for gold medals.

So I think we could be headed somewhere with this.

CONAN: Well, if they do join up, clearly they're going to become an ice dancing pair and crash to the ice.

Mr. CALKINS: The ice dancers are, and I'm not going to reveal what happens because, as you know, we're real-time here and you'll be seeing this considerably later, there was a lot of falling on the ice last night. It was really -- and people don't expect that, necessarily, in ice dancing.

The Canadian woman who took the really, the most horrifying crash and was carried off the ice by her partner, they just scratched. So she had said that she was going to try to skate tonight but, in fact, will not.

The Italian pair, and I think among the various moments of the games that we will remember, is the Italian woman glowering at her partner after he dumped her on the ice in a look that could have melted the ice. They're so far behind they won't catch up.

But there is hope for the Americans who have not skated yet but now are currently in second place and are some threat to the Russians. There is - and this wouldn't happen if you're covering a Super Bowl. But if you talk to the skating press, they say, well, there's some concern, some thought, that maybe the judges don't want to give all the gold medals to the Russians.

They already won in pairs. They already won in men's. They're the favorite to win in the women's individual long program in Irina Slutskaya. And so the thought might be that they might not want a complete Russian sweep here, giving the Americans a better chance than they would otherwise have.

But they are in second, and someone will take the tumble, I'm sure. And we'll be there to see it.

CONAN: Geoff Calkins, thanks very much.

Mr. CALKINS: Thanks, Neal. Appreciate it.

CONAN: Geoff Calkins, sports columnist for the Memphis Commercial Appeal, speaking to us on the phone from Turin in Italy. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan.

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