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Colbert swoops in to save speedskating team

The host of “The Colbert Report”  heard that U.S. Speedskating has lost its main sponsor, the bankrupt Dutch bank DSB and decided to step in — in his own humorous fashion.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Imagine the possibilities for this strange new relationship between Stephen Colbert and America’s speedskaters.

Maybe we’ll be seeing a new segment, “Better Know A Speedskater.” (The fightin’ medalists!)

“I see your name is APOLO Anton Ohno,” the master of mock punditry asks when he gets one of America’s top Winter Olympians in the hot seat. “So, what’s it like to speedskate on the moon?”

Maybe Colbert can take a few lessons from Shani Davis or Chad Hedrick, just enough to give us an Ice Capades-like redux of that memorable dance down a hallway behind none-too-amused congressman Barney Frank.

And, of course, there’s always the chance for another “Green Screen Challenge” — hey, who can come up with a video that makes Canadians actually look interesting? (Sorry, neighbors to the north, but you are one of Colbert’s favorite foils.)

Whatever the case, this sport that draws little attention in the United States other than a couple of weeks every four years has a chance to really shine in the months leading up the Vancouver Olympics, thanks to an unlikely lifeline.

The host of “The Colbert Report,” a four-times-a-week cultural phenomenon that airs late night on Comedy Central, heard that U.S. Speedskating has lost its main sponsor, the bankrupt Dutch bank DSB. Always looking for the chance to mix humor with a serious cause, Colbert stepped in with a unique way to make up a $300,000 funding shortfall.

In exchange for becoming the new primary sponsor of the sport’s governing body, Colbert agreed to put up a fundraising link on his popular Web site — a tactic he used to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for wounded military members and their families — and provide unparalleled media exposure for this underexposed sport.

“This is something that’s never happened before,” said Derek Parra, the coach of the U.S. all-around team and a former gold medalist himself. “We have interest from outside the sport of speedskating.”

The announcement was made on Monday’s show, when Colbert brought up the monetary crisis during one of his regular skits, the “Sport Report” (pronounced “Spor Repor” in a nod to the silent ’t’ in the host’s name).

‘Food was dropping out of my mouth’The skaters, who are used to competing in virtual anonymity, were stunned when they heard of the quickly arranged deal.

In Berlin, where the long-track team is getting ready to compete in a World Cup meet this weekend, Colbert fan Matthew Plummer got the news from a fellow skater at breakfast.

“Food was dropping out of my mouth,” he told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Wednesday. “I was like, ‘No way.’ This is really cool. A lot of things could happen. Wow, maybe he’ll come to one of our practices. Maybe we’ll get a spot on his show or something like that. Maybe he’ll have multiple segments about speedskating. For myself and others, we’d sure like a shot to be on ‘The Colbert Report.”’

On Tuesday’s show, Colbert acknowledged the Web link used to make donations wasn’t working at first. Surely the work of Canadian hackers, he quipped, trying to get an edge for Vancouver. But the link was repaired, and more than $40,000 was donated in the first 24 hours.

Chad Hedrick, who won three speedskating medals at the 2006 Turin Olympics, was glad someone stepped in, though he’s not exactly a huge Colbert fan.

“I read a little bit of his book,” Hedrick said. “I didn’t finish the book, to be honest with you. No offense.”

What about his TV show?

“I don’t know a lot about his show,” Hedrick acknowledged, sounding more and more like a Canadian. “I don’t watch a lot of television.”

But he does know speedskating was in a bind. There was talk of skipping meets after the Olympics and cutting back on developmental programs. Some coaches wondered if they would be paid once the flame went out.

Speedskating has produced more medals (75) for the U.S. than any other Winter Olympic sport, and some top stars at these games figure to be found at the long-track oval (Davis, Hedrick, Trevor Marsicano) and short-track rink (Ohno is back for a third Olympics after winning gold in both 2002 and ’06).

Ohno has come closest to gaining mainstream appeal, the result of his win on “Dancing With the Stars.” But that did more for his soul-patched image than lifting up an entire sport. The deal with Colbert might provide a better conduit for attracting new fans.

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Plummer and two U.S. teammates, Nick Pearson and Tucker Fredricks, were so eager to see Monday’s half-hour show they downloaded it off iTunes at their hotel in Berlin, even though it took nine hours because of a pitifully slow Internet connection.

Plummer also made a pretty good pitch to get on Colbert’s show. Check out this snippet from our own version of “Better Know A Speedskater.”

“About two years ago, I had it in my head that I wanted to set the backward speedskating world record in the 500 meters,” Plummer said.

Please, go on.

Plummer actually applied to Guinness, meeting all the requirements except for one: media coverage. Apparently, a rather crude video he’s posted on YouTube posting a time of 49.7 seconds — going backward all the way at the Olympic oval in Salt Lake City — doesn’t count.

Hmmm, a world record in backward speedskating.

Wonder who might have some fun with that?