As long as we’re going to be watching together for most of the next two weeks, I feel I should tell you that my view of the Winter Olympics can be summed up thusly:
Hockey, and a bunch of Sports That Suck.
Now before you go away mad, let me say that I’m usually more or less won over every four years as the Games go along. Like most people, I’m able to overlook the ham-fisted jingoism and treacly sentimentality of the television coverage and, when the network in charge is good enough to lay down the violins for a few seconds and show us some action, as NBC and its hench-networks seem to be willing to do this time around, I find myself appreciating the real drama that’s transpiring on the slopes and rinks and courses, admiring the incredible athleticism on display, reveling in the pure, uncomplicated joy of victory as it’s experienced by people who every four years get younger. They’re getting young enough now to be my children, although, fortunately for them, none of them are.
Why just Monday there was American figure skater Kyoko Ina’s exultant reaction to her own performance with John Zimmerman in the pairs free skate; German luger Georg Hackl, the greatest athlete his sport has ever seen, winner of a silver and then three golds in the last four Olympics, applauding and then peeking around a corner to give a thumbs up to Armin Zoeggeler, the Italian who’d just beaten him out of a record fourth straight win; gold medalist Ole Einar Bjoerndalen of Norway and silver medalist Frank Luck of Germany collapsing at the finish line of the incredibly grueling 20-kilometer biathlon, literally drooling in exhaustion; the three American snowboarder dudes who swept the halfpipe competition, all baggy pants and goofy grins, accepting their medals.
But we still have problems, the Winter Olympics and I. When it comes right down to it, I don’t like sports where: A) One competitor or game or match looks strikingly similar to all the others; or B) there’s nobody trying to stop you from doing what you’re trying to do.
The Winter Olympics are filled with sports like that. All of the racing sports, the skiing and bobsled and speed skating and luge, are exercises in déjà vu. One guy flying down a mountain on skis looks pretty much like another guy flying down a mountain on skis, and doing it in one minute, 39.13 seconds looks a heck of a lot like doing it in one minute, 41.25 seconds, which is a range that on Monday encompassed 20 skiers.
There are really only two possibilities when a skier charges out of the gate: The skier can fall or not fall. I find myself rooting for a fall on the “Anna Karenina” principle: All successful ski runs are alike, but every spectacular crash is spectacular in its own way.
This is not exactly pleasant.
Something I notice every four years is that most of these fly-down-the-mountain sports are decided in the first few feet out of the gate. Watch the split times on the TV screen as a skier or luger or bobsledder makes her way down the course. If she’s, say, a tenth of a second off the pace at the first split, usually eight or nine seconds into the race, she’s cooked. She’ll fall farther and farther behind throughout the course. If she’s in first place at the first split, she’ll stay in first place, barring a spectacular crash. Again, I find myself, as a viewer, waiting out the will she crash or won’t she question, which I don’t find compelling. I don’t want them to crash. They are real people. But then …
I understand that most people get a lot of enjoyment out of the drama, the question of who’s going to win, whether the current top time will stand up. I don’t. I’m not a fan of racing of any kind because I just don’t care, ever, who can go faster than who, unless A) that someone is an ambulance driver or a waiter and B) I am injured or hungry.
But my biggest problem is the lack of defense, which is to say the lack of direct competition. With the exception of hockey and, to a certain extent, curling, all of the sports in the Winter Olympics feature indirect competition. It’s athlete vs. clock or athlete vs. competitor’s score. The competitors take their turns, sequentially. They never face each other — I mean literally, face each other, the way a hockey forward and defenseman do, or the way two boxers or wrestlers or even tennis players do.
That facing each other, that me trying to stop you and you trying to stop me, is what makes the great sports great.
One of the good things about the Olympics is that they’re always changing, adapting to the times. The Olympics are so hidebound and conservative and downright weird in other areas that they’re a great candidate to be hidebound and out of touch on the field of play, but they’re actually pretty good at staying current and reflecting the sporting landscape by discontinuing some sports and bringing in new ones.
The problem is the sporting landscape. The world’s new sports tend to be of the TV-inspired “X Games” variety. These are, for the most part, sports in which people perform feats of acrobatic skill on some device — a skateboard, a snowboard, a bicycle, etc. — and are judged subjectively on things like artistic merit. Again, no direct competition, no defense.
I blame society. We aren’t interested in doing things if someone’s trying to stop us. We just want to do our thing, individually, be left alone, shine in the spotlight. Teamwork and overcoming resistance — the things that make great sports great — are not valued. It doesn’t bother me that this is leading to some kind of breakdown in the social fabric. It does bother me that it leads to dull sporting events where we’re forced to watch one competitor after another do pretty much the same thing, over and over and over.
On Monday night we got a little glimpse of what defense might look like in the sport that is the Olympics’ signature event and their worst: figure skating. Jamie Sale, the female half of the Canadian pair, and Anton Sikharulidze, the male half of the Russian pair, smacked into each other at full speed during the warmup before their free skate. It was a pretty good center-ice collision. Both of them fell, and Sale looked shaken up. But they both shrugged off any discomfort and skated their programs.
I decided I was a fan of the Canadian pair, Sale and David Pelletier, when I saw their outfits. She wore a charcoal miniskirt and a gray, clingy sweater that somehow made her — all 5-foot-1, 103-pound world-class athlete of her — look dumpy. He wore gray slacks, a gray shirt and a gray sleeveless sweater. She looked like the new temp in accounts payable and he looked like an assistant manager over at the J.C. Penney, but at least they didn’t look like a hooker working a Tinkerbell angle and David Copperfield, as most skating pairs do, and I found it endearing.
Sale and Pelletier skated a routine to the theme from “Love Story” that looked to these unschooled eyes — and to the NBC commentators — to be pretty mistake free while showing signs of life and charisma. Sikharulidze and his partner, Yelena Berezhnaya, favorites to make it 11 straight golds for Soviet or Russian pairs, had skated a routine that had some flaws, but received high scores. It was a more difficult routine, NBC’s Scott Hamilton reminded us.
Sale and Pelletier’s response to the wildly enthusiastic crowd was one of those moments you tune in to the Olympics for. Sale’s icy, dramatic facial expression slowly melted as she saw the crowd rise, cheering. Pelletier clenched his fists toward his partner in celebration, then bent down and kissed the ice. Just before one of their leaps, Hamilton, a 1984 men’s gold medalist, had said, “Throw triple loop, and the gold is theirs.” The jump was perfect. NBC crowned them champs.
Then the scores were revealed. The Canadians were second. The crowd rained boos on the judges, an odd-looking assortment of schoolmarms who sat stone-faced. Sale broke down. The NBC announcers were beside themselves. After a commercial, Sale, who had pulled herself together, told a reporter, simply, “We skated absolutely perfect.”
Sandra Bezic, a former Canadian pairs champion working the Olympics for NBC, said, “I’m embarrassed for our sport right now,” and you had to wonder if this was where the bar was, if this seemingly blown call was the first thing that had embarrassed her, whether she hadn’t been embarrassed by all the Tonya Harding nonsense, or the fact that hers is a sport where the competitors are judged by how they practice, by whether they smile, by whether their outfits please the schoolmarms, by whether they skate early in the evening or later. It’s a crazy, corrupt, cockamamie sport, but now that her homeboy and her homegirl got dissed, Bezic was finally embarrassed.
Well, whatever it takes.