US jumping stars have fan clubs ... but in Germany
PARK CITY, UTAH
esterday morning, before the thin light of day warmed thousands of waiting toes, Alan Alborn stood at the top of the Olympic ski jump and saw something he had never seen before: a home crowd.
A few miles away, at the end of the cross-country course, Todd Lodwick crossed the finish line seventh amid a thicket of Stars and Stripes - the best American Olympic finish ever in the Nordic combined.
On this day, they were national heroes, greeted by peals of applause every time their names and the words "United States" echoed through these alpine valleys. Yet even after the Olympic cauldron was lit Friday, these two remain among America's most anonymous elite athletes.
Even more than in other winter sports, the athletes of nordic events have long been little noticed at home, largely because of the sports' foreign traditions, and America's epic lack of success. Of the 594 medals handed out in the history of Olympic biathlon, cross country, ski jumping, and nordic combined (which combines cross country and ski jumping), the US has won two. What's more, it has rarely come close.
Lodwick and Alborn, however, are far from ballast on the US Olympic squad. When they venture abroad, their success has brought them a respect, notoriety - and even a degree of celebrity unheard-of in their own country, ranging from autograph seekers to doting German fan clubs.
These men aren't deluded that their sports could ever become as beloved in America as they are in Europe or Japan. But they know that any steps toward a greater appreciation of what they do must be made in the next 14 days - or wait another four years.
"It's too bad [ski jumping] is not well-known here," says Alborn, with a platinum-blond shock of hair thatched over dark roots. "But hopefully that will change with the results over the next two weeks."
Both Lodwick and Alborn will compete in two more events later this Olympics, but regardless of those results, they have already carved out a distinct identity on the world stage.
Lodwick is almost certainly the best nordic combined athlete in American history. While that hardly makes him the Jean-Claude Killy of his sport, it has earned him recognition throughout the world. He says he receives "tons" of fan mail from European autograph seekers, and when Olympic favorite Felix Gottwald named his greatest competition before the Games began, Lodwick was on the list. He has finished No. 4 in the world three of the past five years.
Among the crowds here, his name filters about like a rumor. Some have heard of him on NBC broadcasts, but they speak of him with squinted eyes as if he were some sort of algebra equation dimly remembered and not fully understood. Others feel guilty that they don't know of him, and still others simply plead ignorance.
Only a scattering claim to have known about him before Friday. Lodwick says this doesn't bother him, but he has created his own website (www.toddlodwick.com) to promote himself and the sport.
Alborn, for his part, was fortunate enough to have someone set up a fan site for him and all his teammates. Oddly, though, the website is from a German - not an American - admirer (www.us-skijumping.de.vu).
While Alborn is not yet as established as Lodwick, he has the allure of youth. Considered one Olympiad from his prime, Alborn has still had a breakout year, finishing in the top 10 four times, including one fourth-place finish. Earlier this year, he became the first American to jump more than 200 meters.
At the base of the ski jump here, flanked by scores of Polish flags, it's clear that Alborn is better known to the foreigners than to those cheering loudest for him. The Poles are here to back Adam Malysz, a gold-medal favorite, but they've heard of the young Alborn. Good things, too.
Kazimer Sabowski, who slept in his car the night before the qualification round to see the flying Pole, knows that Alborn finished sixth in one leg of Europe's famous Four Hills tournament. By contrast, all the Americans queried simply shrug their shoulders. One says he remembers the name "Eric Heiden," but then realizes that was a speed skater - from 22 years ago. Most others just say these are some of the cheapest tickets, and they wanted to come to something.
Alborn, though, seems glad to have the support. Asked before the Games if he had ever had a home-field advantage like the ones he sees in Europe and Japan, where 6,000 to 7,000 fans turn out for the big events, he thinks briefly. "No."