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In hot climes, Games don't resonate

The Winter Olympics lack appeal in warmer countries - but organizers are trying to change that.

When Alex Heath tips the starting gate this week in the alpine men's combined event, he will have no shot at a medal. At the bottom of his downhill run, he is likely to find himself at the bottom of the leader board. And back home, hardly anyone will notice his Olympic moment.

Yet for an athletic event founded on the principle of bringing together all the continents in peace, the South African is an important asterisk. As one of only three Africans in the Winter Games, he represents one ring of the Olympic flag almost all by himself.

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Unlike their summer counterpart, the Winter Games have always been nearly as exclusive as inclusive. Nations with no snow or ice have no cultural attachment to curling or cross country, no place to train ski jumpers - and much less interest in watching the Games.

As an ostensibly global event, the Winter Olympics do get viewers interested simply in the spectacle of the Games, or curious to discern why anyone would willingly slide down an icy sluice at speeds of 90 miles per hour, wearing only a pair of oversized elastic underpants. But these are, in many ways, the un-Olympics, largely ignored in many parts of the world - even as organizers look for ways to broaden the appeal.

"Now that the Winter Games have their separate cycle [from the Summer Games], there is this question of how do we globalize them as an institution," says Jeffrey Segrave, an Olympic historian at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

For one, Olympic organizations in nations with no winter traditions have been encouraged to get involved wherever they can. Hence the Jamaican bobsled team, the Trinidad and Tobago bobsled team, the Virgin Islands bobsled team. There are others - from Venezuela to Thailand - that have sent alpine skiers, cross-country skiers, and lugers to Salt Lake. Fiji even has a skier who learned the sport only three years ago and trains mostly on the mountainous South Island of New Zealand.

Still, Finland has far more Winter Olympic athletes than Africa, South America, and Oceania combined, and South African skier Heath knows that's not likely to change. Although he's noticed some hometown interest in this, his second appearance, the Winter Games remain too unfamiliar to become truly popular in a nation where snow exists only on television.

"It's really heard for most people to understand what I do," says Heath, who learned to ski on an artificial hill at age 12 when his family moved to Britain. "I have to take that into account."

Countryman Jerry Weitsz still doesn't understand it, even though he moved to a more-frosty America seven years ago. Since he arrived, he's grown fond of American football, basketball, and baseball, but he still just doesn't get winter sports.

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"I do watch the Summer Games ... but that's because I grew up with those sports," says the New Jersey resident. "If I'm around a TV, I might watch the [Winter Games], but I won't make any effort to watch them."

Adding new sports like freestyle skiing and short-track speed skating has expanded the brotherhood of medal contenders beyond the shadow of the Arctic Circle. Yet two continents - Africa and South America - have never won Olympic medals, and are in no danger of breaking that streak in 2002.

Some suggest shifting popular sports such as basketball and volleyball, which are really winter sports anyway, to the Winter Games - a move that sounds good to Peruvian Patricia Patiño.

The people of Peru "prefer to watch soccer or volleyball," says Patiño, who moved to Salt Lake a year ago for college. "The people [of Peru] know that something is happening here, but it's not important because it's not their passion."

With time, though, others say winter sports could establish more of a tradition in temperate nations. Only six years ago, Peter Donohoe wanted to run the 400-meter hurdles in the Summer Games. Now, the pilot for the two-man Irish bobsled is "in a position where I love what I do."

Like Heath, he has no plans for a medal, but with incremental improvement, he hopes to parlay current Irish press coverage of his quixotic quest into greater future interest islandwide: "I like to think that we're pioneers for winter sports in Ireland."