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Rule changes mean lovable losers will be lacking at Vancouver Olympics


VANCOUVER - From Eddie the Eagle and the Jamaican bobsled team to a Mexican cross-country skier who moved so slowly that race officials sent out a search party to find him, the last Winter Olympics held on Canadian soil provided no shortage of lovable losers to cheer for.

And for many, the lasting images of the 1988 Calgary Games aren't those of Canadian silver medallist Elizabeth Manley or three-time Finnish ski-jump champion Matti Nykkanen, but of the underdogs who made it all the way to the Olympics despite their seeming absence of the athletic ability. But while such average joe performances tend to be crowd-pleasers, next month's Vancouver-Whistler Winter Games will feature little of the like, says an Olympic historian. "I think the IOC took the position that it takes away from the real athletes, the ones who succeed," said David Wallechinsky, co-author of "The Complete Book of the Winter Olympics: The Vancouver 2010 Winter Edition." After the 1988 Games, the International Olympic Committee instituted what's popularly known as the "Eddie the Eagle rule." The rule requires athletes who want to compete in the Games to place among the top 50 competitors in international events or in the top 30 per cent. The Eagle, whose real name is Michael Edwards, became a folk hero during the Calgary Games for his infectious smile and personality, despite the fact that he finished far behind even his closest ski jump competitor. Edwards, who had been jumping for just two years when he became the first British man to compete in the sport at the Games, lamented the tightened restrictions during an interview with The Canadian Press late last year. "It was a bit ironic - I became so popular in Calgary because I was exemplifying that Olympic spirit and then I got banned because of it," he said. The IOC has been unapologetic when it comes to giving the spotlight back to those who win events, as opposed to those who lose them in an entertaining manner. During a news conference last month, IOC President Jacques Rogge was asked if there would be an Edwina the Eagle in Vancouver after women's ski jumpers were denied the chance to compete in the 2010 Games. Quipped Rogge: "I think in the Olympic Games the eagles don't fly anymore." "They were not as entertained as the rest of us were," Wallechinsky, who is also vice-president of the International Society of Olympic Historians, said of the IOC. "When you have an Eddie the Eagle, who won that event nobody remembers? The IOC would like to emphasize people who did well." Wallechinsky said the Vancouver Games won't have quite the same "Everyman" feel that Calgary did because of the tougher qualification standards. "You may get some very slow alpine skiers or nordic skiers," he said, but nothing mirroring the cast of lovable losers in 1988. Mexico's Roberto Alvarez entered the 50-kilometre cross-country ski race although he'd never travelled more than 20 kilometres on snow. Race officials, fearing he was lost, sent out a search party to find him. Alvarez finished dead last in the event, clocking in almost 52 minutes behind his nearest competitor. The Jamaican bobsled team, whose path to the 1988 Games was featured in the film "Cool Runnings," also competed in Calgary despite inadequate training. The team suffered a spectacular crash during the four-man event but won the hearts of many when members carried their sled across the finish line. Seba Johnson of the Virgin Islands posted the best performance by an athlete from a snowless country in Winter Games history when she finished 28th in the Calgary giant slalom. Only one competitor had a slower time than Johnson, but 35 of the 64 athletes in the event failed to complete both required giant slalom runs. Wallechinsky said Olympic fans are now more likely to see average joe performances in the Summer Games rather than the Winter. "In the Summer Olympics, there's a real move to have somebody from every country so they've created a rule, the IOC, where every country can enter one man, one woman in track, maybe swimming," he said. "In track, every country gets to enter a 100-metre runner. For some reason, the slow people don't get as much attention maybe because it's over in 10 seconds, or in their cases, 16." Among the lovable losers from Summer Games past is Eric "The Eel" Moussambani of Equatorial Guinea. Moussambani competed in the Sydney Olympics in 2000, despite the fact he'd only trained for a few months. Spectators feared Moussambani would drown during the 100-metre race but he managed to win his heat - when both of his competitors were disqualified for false starts. Moussambani received a standing ovation, even though he finished more than one minute behind his nearest overall competitor. Another swimmer from Equatorial Guinean, Paula "The Crawler" Barila Bolopa, also generated her fair share of media attention when she took to the pool in 2000. Like Moussambani, she finished well back but was lauded for her courage. Bruce Kidd, dean of the faculty of physical education and health at the University of Toronto, said there's a simple reason why such stories stick in the minds of members of the public. "There's a tremendous amount of courage and persistence and determination that is shown and those are all values that the Olympic movement and the sporting public admire," he said. While some might suggest the IOC's actions have made it more difficult for Olympic hopefuls to actually reach the Games, Olivier Niamkey, project manager for the committee's Olympic solidarity program, said just under $8 million in scholarships has been given to amateur athletes hoping to compete in 2010. Niamkey said 325 athletes in developing countries have received the funding so they're able to travel and train in the same conditions as other athletes. Among those receiving the scholarships, he said, is an Iraqi athlete trying to qualify for skeleton. "What we want to see is if they are going to the Games they should be well-prepared, they should be trained, they should have the means to train at the same level as the other athletes," he said.

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