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Bobsledding values star power over know-how

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Updated: March 20, 2014 6:34AM

KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — What kind of sport is it in which a newcomer can show up, train for seven months, compete in five international races total and make the U.S. Olympic team?

Not much of one.

Or, as they prefer to call it here, bobsledding.

I’m not referring to renowned attention magnet Lolo Jones, who has been competing in the sport for all of 16 months. The bobsledding neophyte is Lauryn Williams, a superb track sprinter who won a gold medal in the 2012 Summer Olympics as part of the United States’ 400-meter relay team. She also happens to be the brakeman for the United States’ No. 1 sled, which was piloted Tuesday by Elana Meyers. All that in seven months.

That’s not to minimize the courage it takes to go down a mountain at faster than 80 mph or the dedication it takes to train for the event. But it’s hard to get indignant about Jones’ controversial inclusion on the U.S. team when the pool of people who participate in the sport can be wiped away with a squeegee. The U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation has about 400 members.

In November 2012, Jones and pilot Jazmine Fenlator won silver in a World Cup race in Lake Placid, N.Y. How long had Jones been involved in the sport? Five weeks.

Last month, U.S. bobsled officials chose Jones, a two-time Olympic hurdler, over Palos Hills’ Katie Eberling and two other brakemen, even though Eberling had won silver in the world championships last year. Darrin Steele, the CEO of the federation, said that the decision was a ‘‘close call’’ but that race results were ‘‘trending’’ in Jones’ favor.

Sorry, but no. What we have here is a sport desperate for attention. And, really, it’s all silliness. Jones’ fame and involvement will make no long-term difference for U.S. bobsledding. It’s — and this can’t be overstated — bobsledding. Herschel Walker, Edwin Moses
and Willie Gault took part in the sport, and where is it today? With two bobsled tracks in the entire United States.

There’s no doubt Eberling got shafted. It’s her bad fortune to be part of a sport that would sell its soul for track’s version of a Kardashian. On the other hand, what people are we talking about at the Winter Games? The U.S. men’s hockey team. Vladimir Putin. Pussy Riot. And Jones.

Somebody decided a while back that bobsledding was an Olympic sport, thus raising it up to something much bigger than what it is: a race down a hill. A bobsledding gold medal is worth just as much as a basketball gold medal, but no one in his right mind would argue the accomplishments are equal.

Jones didn’t take up downhill skiing after her dreams of a medal were dashed two years ago in London. She took up bobsledding because she could learn it quickly, be a big fish in a small pond, possibly win an Olympic medal and keep herself in the limelight. It was a shrewd, tactical decision by a very fast runner.

In the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, Jones failed to get gold in the 100-meter hurdles after tripping on a hurdle. She had
been the favorite. She finished fourth in London.

‘‘You’re fighting for that Olympic dream,’’ Jones said of bobsledding. ‘‘You’re fighting for that gold medal. At the end of the day, that’s what I’ve always wanted — to be able to stand on that podium and hear the national anthem.

‘‘It doesn’t matter what sport. When you’re wearing Team USA, it does not feel different if you’re in a bobsled uniform or a track uniform. You get the same chills. Well, maybe you’re a little bit colder in bobsled.’’

It looks like she’s out in the cold again. On a rainy Tuesday, she and Fenlator — in USA-3 — were in 11th place after two runs. There are two more runs Wednesday to decide the medals, but it looks like one is out of Jones’ reach again. Meyers’ sled is in first place.

‘‘I’m happy where my teammates are at,’’ Jones said. ‘‘We’re here, Team USA. We’re a wolf pack, and we’re definitely willing to support in all aspects.’’

Eberling certainly was. She came here as an alternate in case of injury to another sledder. Would she have done better than Jones? Nobody knows. Judging by the tiny crowd at the Sanki Sliding Center, nobody much cares about any of it, including the sport.

Eberling was disappointed with the federation’s decision last month, calling it ‘‘not right.’’

It wasn’t. But it seems so predictable in hindsight.


Twitter: @MorrisseyCST

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