At the start of the Vancouver Olympics, pardon this burst of unabashed jingoistic non-journalistic bias, but let me say this anyway: I hope the skeleton racer Zach Lund has a most excellent time.
I was on assignment at the last Winter Games, in Torino, Italy, exactly four years ago, when just hours before the opening ceremonies, Lund was pulled out of the Athletes Village and banished from the Games.
The Olympics are full of heartwarming stories. This wasn't one of them. In covering 10 Olympics in person and watching them on TV all my life, it was as cold and heartless an act as I've ever heard of or seen.
The story has been told and retold about Lund's problem: In an effort to avoid going bald, he had used a hair-restoration product that had an ingredient, finasteride, that made its way onto the list of banned substances.
For years, Lund had dutifully notified the drug-checkers that he used finasteride, but he failed to notice when it was officially included as a banned substance that Olympic year. As a result, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency placed him on probation but allowed him in the Games. The World Anti-Doping Agency picked the week of the Olympics to protest that sentence as too lenient. Acting on the agency's protest, the Court of Arbitration for Sport handed down its decision to ban Lund from the 2006 Olympics on the day they were to begin.
At the time, Zach Lund of Salt Lake City was the No. 1 ranked skeleton racer in the world.
So here it is four years later, and the story isn't so much that Lund has returned, like MacArthur, to the scene of his greatest defeat.
The story isn't the irony that finasteride is no longer a banned substance (a year ago, they took it off the list because there wasn't an iota of evidence it could mask steroids — by which point Lund's finasteride-free head was shaved as clean as a skeleton track).
Nor is it the irony that these Olympics are in Canada and that it was Canadians who benefited most from Lund's 2006 Torino no-show, as Duff Gibson and Jeff Pain, two Canadian sliders, won gold and silver. (Or that the World Anti-Doping Agency chief who lobbied for Lund's head, as it were, was longtime Canadian Olympic operative Dick Pound).
And it certainly isn't a story about redemption.
Lund took care of that in 2006-07. As soon as his one-year suspension was lifted, he hit the sport with a vengeance, accompanied by a self-confessed "chip on my shoulder."
He won four World Cup events that winter on a nine-race schedule and captured the overall World Cup championship. The crowning moment came in the season's sixth race in Torino, where they finally let him slide down the Olympic track. He not only won World Cup gold, but set a track record that obliterated all those Olympic times.
That happened exactly one year to the day after he'd been booted out of the Torino Olympics.
That was his redemption.
The story is that he's here. Period.
This isn't Torino. It's not 2006.
It's a new, fresh chapter.
This — the Vancouver Games — is his second chance, his mulligan, his makeup call. His opportunity to touch the O rings.
"Now that I'm here, I'm on top of the world," said Lund, from Vancouver. "It hasn't been easy, and I had to work hard to make it back. But I realize I'm so lucky to be here and to be competitive."
This time, he's not the favorite. This time, he's ranked 13th.
Although no one's counting him out in a field that includes six of the last seven World Cup overall champions, Lund being one of them.
"I want to win. I really want to win," said Lund. "But I don't have to win."5 comments on this story
"It's funny," he said. "I wouldn't go back and change what happened, even if I could. It made me grow, and it gave me a broader perspective on life. … Because of what happened, being back here again, even though I'm not No. 1 in the world, I feel so appreciative about everything I get to experience."
That will be Zach Lund of Salt Lake City tonight, marching with the U.S. team, wide-eyed, soaking it all in, finally, for the very first time.
And even though I know it isn't absolutely necessary — and maybe because I know it isn't absolutely necessary — I sure hope he collects gold.
Lee Benson's column runs Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Please send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.