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Shall we dance _ for gold?

When the news first leaked out, it seemed like the world's largest practical joke. The International Olympic Committee, the people who run the Olympic Games, announced in April that they had granted provisional recognition to that activity in which you straddle an ironing board while it's being hurtled toward a pile of sand.

Yes. Surfing.

After a two-year trial period, if it turns out that surfers really aren't a bunch of Kato Kaelin impersonators, surfing can be included as a medal sport in the Big O. Already the announcement is causing wild celebrations in surf-crazy countries such as China, France and Russia.

"Yo, comrade dude. Gnarly waves at the Black Sea last week, da?"

The IOC's work wasn't finished, however. Like a bunch of kids who decide to throw a second rock at the police chief's house, the committee also gave provisional recognition to ballroom dancing.

Yep. Creepy, musty, Lawrence Welk-loving, I-think-I-saw-it-once-in-a-movie ballroom dancing.

As you might expect, not everyone is happy with this. After the IOC announcement, sportscasters snickered, pundits made puns, and John Krimsky, executive director of the U.S. Olympic Committee said this:

"I would hope some sanity will come back into the selection of Olympic sports."

Time out for a word or two about ballroom dancing. (The surfers can defend themselves.)

Maybe Mr. Krimsky should remind himself that the IOC has seen fit, at one time or another, to include the following events in the Olympics: rope climbing, club swinging, live pigeon shooting, tug-of-war, stone throwing, underwater swimming and that all-time crowd favorite _ the plunge for distance.

Consider some of the events that remain Olympic sports: Ping-Pong, curling, luge, badminton, and that thing women do with the streamers _ rhythmic gymnastics.

Sanity? How about the biathlon? That's where a person, hopefully someone who has passed a battery of psychological tests, gets to ski across the countryside and stop occasionally _ to shoot a gun.

Yes, ballroom dancing has an image problem. There's no denying that. But it's no more strange than the modern pentathlon, which involves these five everyday activities: riding a horse you've never seen before, fighting somebody with a sword, running and swimming great distances, and _ it wouldn't be an Olympic sport without this _ shooting a gun.

Olympic ballroom dancing _ which is actually called dance sport _ is a fast-paced, very precise and difficult activity, a cross between synchronized swimming and pairs figure skating.

The problem many of us have with something like dance sport is that it doesn't fit our image of what a sport should be. We figure that if you can't knock your opponents down or otherwise conquer them, or if you don't get dirty, sweaty and/or bloody, it's not really a sport.

How is the average American supposed to relate to dance sport competitors who wear shiny leather shoes, frills, spangles and lots of makeup? (The women also get dressed up.)

Dance sport is huge in Europe. But so is Jerry Lewis, so forget that argument.

No, you have to allow yourself a chance to appreciate this. You might be surprised to learn, for instance, that doctors in Germany recently found there's no difference between running 800 meters and doing the quickstep for a minute and a half.

The competition at the Olympics will probably include 10 dances _ the waltz, tango, Viennese waltz, slow fox trot, quickstep, the cha-cha, samba, rumba, paso doble and jive. A couple has to perform all 10 dances, each for about a minute and a half.

"It's not what your grandma and grandpa are doing," explained Peg Stetson, president of the Treasure Coast chapter of the United States Amateur Ballroom Dancers Association.

"You get exceedingly tired because you have to dance it over and over again in elimination rounds. By the time you're through, you have may have danced them dozens of times."

Dancers representing the United States will be chosen through national competitions like the one held every January in Clearwater. This year, the event will have about 400 competitors, including college teams from Brigham Young University, Syracuse, MIT, Cornell, Yale, Princeton, Rutgers, Duke, Notre Dame and UCLA.

"I try my darndest to get coverage of this," Stetson said, "and everyone ignores us.

"I've heard TV commentators laughing about it," she added. "But those people just aren't fully aware of what's involved. It certainly is no different from dancing on ice. It's as much a sport as figure skating."

Provisional recognition is a giant first step for dance sport. But these things take time. Stetson, who is 72, says with a sigh that she may not be around to see dance sport become a full-fledged Olympic event.

"It probably won't happen until the 2004 Olympics," she said, "and I probably won't be here to see it.

"But it's not for me. It's for kids like the ones who will be here in January. They're the ones who can eventually dance at the Olympics."

Still feel the same way about ballroom dancing?