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"Cheers' to this reason to cheer

Sometime, later this week, Bjoernar Haakensmoen will sit down at a table in Elverum, Norway, with his wife.

In his hands will be a bottle of Italian wine, a gift from a woman Haakensmoen barely knows and may never see again. The cork will be pulled, the wine will be poured, and who knows if Haakensmoen will know what words to say.

So allow me the honor of offering an early toast today:

To Bjoernar Haakensmoen, my Olympic hero.

Based on television ratings, you have not been absorbed by these Olympic Games. Many of the stars went bust, and several even went beyond. We saw boors and fools; we listened to excuses and double talk.

But not every story was dreary, and not every message selfish. Some gestures were large, such as Joey Cheek donating the prize money from his gold and silver medals to children in Sudan. Some gestures were smaller, barely seen.

This is the story of one of those lesser-known moments. A simple, instinctual act that could define the entire notion of Olympic spirit.

It happened almost two weeks ago, far from the glamor of Alpine skiing or speed skating. It was during a cross-country race in Pragelato, an event that doesn't register a blip in America but is NASCAR-intense in Europe.

In the women's team sprint, Canadian Sara Renner was in the lead and beginning an uphill portion on the third lap when her left ski pole broke.

Renner was frantic. She tried going uphill with one pole but struggled to make progress. Within seconds, three other skiers had passed her.

Her teammate, Beckie Scott, watched helplessly.

"When I saw what happened to Sara," Scott said, "I thought, "Oh, no, that's it.' "

What happened next is hard to define. You could say it was simple. You could call it extraordinary. The choice, I suppose, depends on your outlook.

From one side of the course, a man stepped forward and handed Renner his ski pole. It was larger than Renner's other pole, but she made it work. She got up the hill and limited the damage. When she traded spots with Scott, the Canadian team began chasing down those who had passed it.

By the race's finish, Renner and Scott had a silver medal.

Renner didn't know it at the time, but the man who came out of the crowd to hand her his pole was Haakensmoen, the coach of Norway's cross-country team.

This graceful act of sportsmanship from a competitor has created a sensation in Canada. Le Journal de Montreal ran a banner headline that simply read Takk, a Norwegian word for thank you.

Flowers, notes and e-mails poured into the Norwegian Olympic Committee offices. A hotel in the Alberta mountain resort Banff has offered a free week's stay to Haakensmoen and his wife. And a Montreal businessman is spearheading an effort to send 8,000 cans of maple syrup to Norway.

Renner, who had never met the Norwegian ski coach, had the bottle of Italian wine shipped to him in the Olympic Village.

"I just think people can relate to this symbol of sportsmanship in this day and age of high-priced athletes," said Shane Pearsall, chef de mission for Canada's Olympic team. "There are so many people trying to win, and it's usually a dog-eat-dog mentality. Canada could have very easily been left behind in this race, but he only wanted to beat us if we were at our best.

"I'm usually inundated with negative stories, but along comes this wonderful gesture, and I think people were moved by. I think they're starving to hear this kind of message."

Pearsall said a letter has been sent to the International Olympic Committee in the hope that Haakensmoen will be officially recognized for his act of sportsmanship.

For his part, Haakensmoen, 36, seems mystified by the attention. He did, he said, what anyone else would have done.

Perhaps that attitude is part of the cultural differences among countries. Or maybe it's just the naivete of someone with a kind heart.

But know this: Not everyone would have offered help to a competitor leading a race. Not in a day when we have steroid raids, NASCAR cheats, recruiting scandals and bickering teammates.

We have grown so accustomed to athletes behaving badly that the idea of a selfless act seems as foreign as these Games.

"The Olympic spirit is the way we try to follow. Without that, we are in big trouble," Haakensmoen told the Gannett News Service. "Every skier, every staff member from Norway follows that.

"If you win but don't help somebody when you should have, what win is that?"

The Games are over now, but the Olympic spirit lives on. It lives on in winners like Cheek. In losers like Lindsey Kildow.

It will live on every time a child on a field of play stops to help up a fallen competitor, following the lesson of someone such as Haakensmoen.

Oh, by the way, there is one final detail to the story. One that makes it somehow sweeter and more heartbreaking at the same time.

Can you guess one of the teams Canada passed with a borrowed stick and knocked out of medal contention?

That's right.

Norway finished fourth.