By Mitch Albom
CALGARY, Alberta -- Once upon a time, before blimps, the Olympics worked like this: You grew up in a small town, you sailed to some foreign place, you competed, you won a medal, you sailed home and got invited to all the good parties. This was a fine system, because you always knew where to find a former Olympian in case he owed you money. You needed Jurgen, the Swedish ski jumper, you went to Sweden and looked around.
Today it is not so easy. The Olympics have become something for big-nation athletes to "get into" -- no matter whom they represent. Which means countries the size of toaster ovens are suddenly very popular; natives in these places are not all that interested in starting an Olympic team because brushfires keep destroying their huts.
So it was that I found myself at the Canmore Nordic Centre Wednesday morning, shivering outside a small trailer marked "Guam." Now, normally, I don't do Guam. I don't speak Guam. I don't know Guam. OK? Sorry.
But the sole Guam athlete in these Winter Olympics is from my home state, Michigan, which, last time I checked, was nowhere near the South Pacific. Judd Bankert grew up in Lake Orion, went to Michigan State, became an accountant and was transferred to Guam (next stop, Japan) by his company six years ago.
Did you know that Guam is a U.S. territory? Did you know a citizen in America is a citizen there? Ta-da! Presenting Bankert, the new Olympic biathlete, dressed in speed suit, rifle, hat and skis, representing a nation that has a typhoon once a month.
"Can you even buy skis in Guam?" I ask.
"No," he says.
"Is there any snow in Guam?" I ask.
"No," he says.
I no longer flinch at such responses. I have already met the Jamaican bobsled team and the Puerto Rican luger. I have already interviewed competitors who, until recently, thought slush was a myth.
Still, you have to give Bankert credit. This was quick. Until five months ago, when he began training, he hadn't been on skis since 1980, and he hadn't shot a gun since he was a kid hunting pheasants. "He missed all the targets his first time out," admits his biathlon coach, Richard Domey.
Hey. No big deal. Just don't stand near him. Never mind that, as Guam's only Olympian, he trains in Washington state, where he plans to live after the Games. Never mind that the native Guamanians, called Chamorro, wouldn't know a biathlete if he shot them in the sandal. (Personally, I figure if one Chamorro says, "Hey, did you hear about our American accountant at the Olympics?" the other Chamorro says, "Umm-hmm. Pass the bait.")
Which brings us to fishing, something the people of Guam actually like to do. I know this, because I am told it by Mr. James Ji, vice-president of the Guam Olympic Committee. Mr. Ji is also here, standing outside the trailer. Mr. Ji looks as if he's freezing.
"What's the coldest it gets in Guam?" I ask.
"Eighty," he says.
That explains it.
Still, everyone in this little party is pretty keen on Guam's first Olympian. "Better to have one person than no person," Mr. Ji says.
Besides, they say, Guam, an island 30 miles wide, is actually the tallest mountain in the world. It's just that 37,000 feet of it are under water.
But back to our theme. More and more athletes are finding these loophole ways to compete in the Olympics. Bankert lived in Guam long enough to satisfy the Olympic requirements (although he lived in Michigan a lot longer). A U.S. businessman named George Fitch hunkered down $60,000 and slapped together a Jamaican bobsled team. George Tucker, a middle-aged American considered a pest at the Lake Placid luge track, remembered one of his grandparents was Puerto Rican and -- presto! -- San Juan had an Olympic luge team.
(By the way, I figure this grandparents-counting-as- nationality business is real bad news. Especially for Americans. You can imagine the scene 40 years from now, when the little tyke comes in with skates.
"Grandma, where were you born?"
"Damn it. Why couldn't you come from Nepal?")
So I don't know about this Guam stuff. I'm sure Bankert is a nice guy.
("My goal here," he says, "is to do a personal best and not interfere with the world-class racers.") Still, the whole point of the Olympics, I always thought, was to represent your country, not your plane ticket.
"Didn't you feel funny carrying the Guam flag during the opening ceremonies?" I ask.
"No different than I would carrying the Michigan flag," he says.
Well, maybe. At least his teammates could find Michigan on a map.
Anyhow, this, under the rules, is what the Games have become. While the folks back in Guam go spear fishing, Bankert skis, shoots and tries to make up for lost time. He's behind the other biathletes by only about, oh, 14 years.
"But Judd's come along very fast," says Domey, the coach. "We now think we can beat some people. We have our eye on Costa Rica and Puerto Rico."
To whom, considering Bankert's aim, I say this:
Duck. CUTLINE Judd Bankert, formerly of Lake Orion, will give the biathlon his best shot as Guam's only Olympian.
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