The gifts of the Olympics

The 19th Winter Games were flawed by gamesmanship and bickering, but like every Olympics, they gave us much more.

Topics: Olympics, Winter Olympics,

The gifts of the Olympics

The 2002 Winter Olympics are finished. What inspiring lessons did we learn about ourselves this time? One is that the human race, which this whole monstrous extravaganza is designed to celebrate, is — surprise! — all too human. The Salt Lake City Olympics will be remembered, in large part, as the Gamesmanship Games — the ones when popular uproar/media hysteria/justice (take your pick) caused an unprecedented second gold medal to be awarded in the same event, when the aggrieved Russians threatened to take their puck and go home, when thousands of enraged South Koreans bombarded the Olympic servers with irate e-mails, when the host nation — which also happens to be the most powerful nation on earth — was accused of influencing the scoring with its flag-waving power.

That there was a less than Olympian aspect to parts of these Games, like all Games, is undeniable. Political realities from outside the Olympics’ snow-bubble fantasy world broke rudely in, from the slightly embarrassing chip on the shoulder of the Russians, to the occasional resentment of Triumphant America. (Could some of the bitterness about American domination and unfairness have been spurred by a lethal combination of endless, “Clockwork Orange”-like showings of those insufferable Ralph Lauren ads, which may have driven the fragile French figure skating judge mad, and by our aggressively unilateralist foreign policy?) But in the long run, the bitterness — feigned or real — will fade and the ephemeral political disputes will be forgotten. The world will little note nor long remember what a few bureaucrats said here: It cannot forget what the athletes, win or lose, did here.

Unfortunately, those who saw the Salt Lake City Games only on television may not understand this as clearly as those who have actually seen an Olympics. NBC did a reasonably creditable job of covering the events, given the time constraints of showing three to five events in one three-and-a-half hour time slot. But having attended the two Games before this, I can attest that something intangible and vital was lost on TV. And what was lost was what makes the Olympics special: the internationalism, the sportsmanship, the pure joy of competition.

Part of the blame for this falls on NBC; part was, I suspect, inevitable. Bowing to the ratings gods, NBC relentlessly highlighted and promoted American athletes, to a degree that at times was ludicrous. At one event in which the gold medal was won by an American, the announcers actually forgot to inform us who had won silver and bronze, and it was routine for NBC to interview Americans who finished second or third, ignoring the non-American gold medallist. And, of course, there were the endless teasers: American so-and-so is coming up in 10 minutes!

Some of this is understandable: It’s natural to root for the home team, and it’s natural for a national TV network to cater to its viewers’ interests. But NBC should have taken the high road a little more, accepted that it might lose a few viewers, cut back a little on the flag-waving and told more stories about foreign athletes. This is, after all, the Olympics: Yes, it offers an opportunity for patriotism, but also for its big brother, a kind of mature national pride that regards patriotism as sterile and ingrown if it does not honor and respect and take an interest in the rest of the world as well. America should be a big and confident enough country not to have to obsess about itself and pound its own chest like some provincial backwater. It’s unseemly. And it leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth: I got as hooked on all the American-angle stories as the next viewer, but by the end of the Games I felt like I had been dragged into a cramped and parochial universe, that no one at NBC was letting me try to reach above myself to the richness and variety of the Games.

And based on past experience, I would bet that the mostly American fans at these Games were more interested in athletes from other countries, and demonstrated more sportsmanship and more of the Olympic spirit, than NBC did. When you’re there, you just can’t help it.

To be sure, there is an aspect of the Olympics that probably can’t be captured by even the most enlightened TV coverage. A television camera can show you the entire course of a ski run, allowing you to watch the entire event instead of just seeing a tiny figure explode into view a thousand yards away; it can give you close-ups of a figure skater’s face so close that you can see the tremor of an eyelid as they wait for their scores. But it is a tyrant. You do not get to see your own Games: You see someone else’s. And when you are at a Games, for all of the drawbacks, the bad seats, the horrible logistical problems, you get to choose what you want to see.

And what you see is a vast universe of drama and compassion and anger and silent self-recollection and yes, of the wild Noah’s Ark variety of the human race, that no one who has watched TV for the past 17 days has any idea about.

TV shows you big things. But it cannot show you the small things.

It cannot show you the women coaches of the out-of-the-running young female gymnasts that I saw at Sydney, teachers and surrogate mothers first and gold-medal junkies second, consoling their tiny charges when they had fallen, like teachers and mothers everywhere.

It cannot show you the gunfighter-against-the-world stride of a Cuban long-jumper walking down the track before his final jump, a portrait of indomitability and almost malevolent will framed by a vertical screaming blur of spectators roaring against him.

It cannot show you the upside-down face of a gymnast locked in combat not so much with the apparatus as with himself, a fleeting image that you will forever hold in your mind as an emblem of victory.

It cannot show you the crowds roaring for the last competitors staggering into the Olympic Stadium at the end of the marathon, and cheering on the underdogs and the unknowns — no matter what country they’re from.

But even if you didn’t see them, all of these things happened at Salt Lake City. These Games are bigger than you think, and bigger than you are, most of the time. You have to stand on tiptoe to touch them. We obscurely know this, and that’s one of the reasons why we are drawn to them night after night. We settle in for our three and a half hours of exciting sports, yes, but we also settle in for our three and a half hours of respect, of admiration, of humble recognition. We are used to seeing a lot of fake faces. At the Olympics, you see a lot of real ones.

So many images endure from these Games. Here are a few of mine:

The tears running down the faces of unexpected gold medalists Vonetta Flowers and Derek Parra, a black bobsledder and a Mexican-American speed skater breaking new territory for themselves and for some of their fellow Americans, their emotions overflowing in a fountain of complex and unknowable and innocent joy.

The soaring victory of Simon Ammann of Switzerland, the frail, beak-nosed 20-year-old kid who flew to victory in both ski jumps, the Winter Games’ most beautiful event, then gibbered and shrieked in wonder that was as refreshing as his flight was magnificent.

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The once-in-a-lifetime performance of American Sarah Hughes, affirming the purity of the wonderful, strange, excruciating sport and art of skating with a sublime routine — a “gift to the Games,” the commentator Scott Hamilton aptly called it — that left everyone marveling not just at her grace and skill, but at that age we all once inhabited, one foot still in childhood, one foot in the grown-up world. Hughes was both and she was real.

The great skater Todd Eldredge, destined never to win Olympic gold, falling again in his noncompetitive gala farewell, then nailing his next jump as the crowd, rising to an impulse of sheer solidarity you find in no other sporting event, roared and cheered, a giant hand lifting him gently up and off the ice, forever.

Third-generation Olympian Jim Shea’s skeleton victory, touching the heart of everyone who, like me, had a grandfather who wanted someone in his family to be an Olympian. Shea was a cool guy who, asked if his grandfather — who died just before the Games — was with him in spirit, proved that it wasn’t all just sentimental hype and that he actually liked the old guy, saying, “Yeah, he was here — and he was fast!” Rock on, old and young dudes.

Shea’s feats also inspired the Olympics’ most ill-fated attempt to pitch a death-defying sport as character-building and advisable for kids — narrowly beating out those terrifying home videos, possibly sponsored by the American Irreversible Neck Injury Surgeon’s Association, of American aerialist Eric Bergoust jumping off the roof of his parents’ house, rotating in the air and landing on a mattress. The expert commentator gushed that young people should take up the demented, 70-mph, face-an-inch-above-the-concrete sport of skeleton because “You’d be surprised at the responsibility a young athlete has to learn” — he faltered and began to laugh — “very quickly.”

The exultation on the face of Canada’s Marc Gagnon, four-time world champion, after winning his first gold after failing to medal in earlier Olympics. Gagnon went on to win three golds and steal the thunder of Seattle’s Apolo Anton Ohno, who had a wonderfully theatrical Olympics (and came away with a gold and silver), as the king of the short track. This was the maraschino cherry on top of Canada’s mighty triumph over the U.S. in hockey — a victory that got the 50-year Olympic no-gold monkey off their back and sent a nation into a huge celebration.

And there were the jagged strange losses, reminding us yet again that all great stories are unpredictable and sometimes inexplicable. The great Swedish cross-country skier Per Eloffson dropped out of his first race, saying he just didn’t have it. Didn’t have it? What did that mean? What does it mean? Can the body simply betray the mind — after all this talk of the triumph of the will? No answers.

And there were equally unexpected rays of sunshine, like the wonderful moment of camaraderie and sportsmanship when the legendary German luger Georg Hackl, who had won gold in the previous three Olympics, was finally defeated — whereupon he and the silver medalist lifted the new champion, Italy’s Armin Zoeggeler, on their arms in triumph.

The greatest feat of these Games, without doubt, was that of the amazing Croatian skier Janica Kostelic, winning an unprecedented four medals in Alpine, three gold. Kostelic actually appeared to be smiling as she powered through the turns in what is, when you get down to it, the signature sport of the Winter Olympics. You can make a case for skating and figure skating, but the art and madness of flinging yourself down a mountain is still what mastering snow and ice is all about. And the powerful Kostelic, in a class by herself, simply laid down one of the great Olympic performances of all time.

Far less known, but almost as noteworthy, was the incredible feat of Norway’s Ole Einar Bjoerndalen, who won four golds in biathlon — that amazing event where you ski your lungs out, then shoot a rifle with your heart thumping at 190. Memo to would-be Quislings: Do not steal this man’s wallet and then attempt to cross-country ski away from him!

No account of these Games, of course, would be complete without the event that they will no doubt be remembered for above all else: the pairs skating debacle. It says here that some rough justice was done. Sale and Pelletier skated a cleaner program than the Russians Sikharulidze and Berezhnaya and deserved to win outright. But I was happy the Russians got to keep their gold because they were the artistically and technically superior pair — even though they misfired that night.

And, since we’re handing out real double golds, let’s hand out some imaginary ones too. The Russian figure skater Alexei Yagudin, with his awesome clean power, deserved his gold, but in a perfect world his hated (yes, apparently actually hated) rival Evgeni Plushenko would have won gold too. Despite a haircut that went out of style in mythical Britain ca. 800 A.D., Plushenko was an even more fiery and beautiful competitor than Yagudin. No, Plushenko didn’t deserve the gold — he fell in the short program — but in an event in which artistry is so important, it’s painful to see the greater dancer/athlete lose.

So the 2002 Winter Olympics are history — literally. One of the great things about the Olympics is that each one becomes part of an ongoing tradition. The 19th Games now join their 18 predecessors on an enduring frieze, one that holds images of victory and defeat, glory and ignominy — an imaginary Greek urn that will preserve those memories as long as this lovely, ridiculous, world-binding institution lasts. Kostenica and Hughes, Ammann and Bjoerndalen now take their place next to Killy and Heiden, Harada and Fleming and all the other athletes whose long-vanished deeds come back to life every four years, like a perennial garden of human striving. And as always at the end of the Olympics, one obscurely feels like giving thanks — not just to the athletes who competed, but to the human race itself, that clamorous colony of squabbling bipeds divided by color and creed and marching under different pieces of colored cloth who gather together every four years for a festival of the most serious child’s play in the world. Species pride is not something we humans have many occasions to indulge in, but this is one of them. You may not be able even to stand up on skates or ski down a three-foot rise, but you share the gold with every champion who stands on the podium, and the honor — better than gold — of every competitor who pushes herself to do something faster, higher, stronger than she has before.

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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