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Fun on the ice and snow

Sports | While it may not require the technical skills of a slalom skier, skeleton isn't for sissies

Issue: "Tighter lips?," Feb. 18, 2006

Beloved by many, misunderstood by some, the Winter Olympics stands as a quixotic younger brother to the Summer Games. If recent trends hold, fewer viewers will tune in for the 2006 Winter Games that were scheduled to kick off in Torino, Italy, on Feb. 10 than watched 2004's Summer Games. Figure skating, one of the most popular Winter Olympic sports, wraps up Feb. 24, two days before the closing ceremonies. But that isn't the only thing worth watching.

Noted Winter Games fan and comedian Jerry Seinfeld likes the obscurity of some of the Winter Olympics sports. Take the biathlon-the sport that combines cross-country skiing and shooting a rifle. "How many alpine snipers are into this?" he asks. Or take his strange, if ill-informed, fascination with sled sports like luge and the skeleton. "It's just a human being hanging on for their life, this is the whole sport. Just ahhhhhhhhh . . . 'Oh, he pointed his toes . . . oh, this guy is a tremendous athlete,'" Mr. Seinfeld quipped in his 1990s comedy routines. "The luge is the only sport I've ever seen that you could have people competing in it against their will. And it would be exactly the same."

The TV star's joke applies to the skeleton, too. While it may not require the technical skills of a slalom skier, skeleton isn't for sissies. The sliders, as they're known, careen down the course at speeds up to 85 mph on a 3-foot-long sled while their chin hovers just 2 inches off the ground.

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Sliders make two runs on the course, provided their bodies and sleds survive. Since there isn't a steering mechanism on the skeleton sled (as opposed to the steered luge), sliders have focused mostly on how to make it through the course intact. That could make for some impactful and entertaining television during the two days of skeleton competitions on Feb. 16 and 17.

The low-fidelity nature of the skeleton may be one reason why the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency refused to suspend American slider Zach Lund, who tested positive for a steroid-masking agent in November. Mr. Lund, a favorite to medal, said he tested positive for Finasteride because of a hair restoration product he had been using since 1999.

Once he failed the test, he stopped taking the hair treatment. "If this was God's way of telling me that He wants me to go bald, I get the message." Just weeks before the start of the Winter Games, the no-frills, zero-tolerance USADA issued a release, saying they believed Mr. Lund and refused to suspend him for the games. They may well have wondered: What steroid could help you in the skeleton, anyway?

Story Update: American slider Zach Lund won't be competing in the 2006 Winter Olympics after all. The skeleton racer had been cleared by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency up until last week even though he had tested positive for a steroids masking agent. He says he got it from hair treatment medicine (Propecia). And though the World Anti-Doping agency says it believes Lund isn't a doper, last Friday they decided to overrule the U.S. organization and suspend him anyway.

Around the Horn

A new policy prohibiting facial hair for the Florida Marlins might not be a problem for baby-faced star Miguel Cabrera. Nevertheless, when the Marlins pitchers and catchers report on Feb. 18, new coach Joe Girardi expects them to be clean cut. The former Yankees catcher is bringing to South Florida the grooming guidelines he picked up while in the pinstripes. Yankees owner George Steinbrenner prohibits goatees and beards. Mr. Girardi will ban mustaches and shaggy hair too.

It may have been a loss for the Seattle Seahawks in their first Super Bowl appearance, but the spoils of victory went to more than just the victors, the Pittsburgh Steelers. The NFL cleaned up in television ratings, earning the second-highest mark ever behind the final episode of M*A*S*H. According to Neilsen Media Service, 45.85 million households tuned into Super Bowl XL-behind only the wildly popular 1983 television finale. Neilsen estimates 141.4 million viewers tuned in to see the Steelers win their fifth Super Bowl.

When the voters selected football icon John Madden for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Mr. Madden said he still thought of himself as a coach, even though he hasn't worn a headset since the 1978 season. But Mr. Madden is probably better known as a broadcasting legend and the face of one of the most popular video game franchises ever-EA Sports Madden football games. His reaction? "Whoa. I'm, I'm, I'm in shock," Mr. Madden said at the podium before starting a classic Madden episode of laughing and mumbling a series of nearly incomprehensible words.

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