Sochi Olympics: A skier’s tearful win, a skater’s shocking loss

As usual in Olympics prime-time coverage, the primary goal is to tug audience heartstrings

Topics: Olympics, olympics recap, sochi olympics, 2014 Olympics,

Sochi Olympics: A skier's tearful win, a skater's shocking lossWinner Canada's Alex Bilodeau celebrates after the men's freestyle skiing moguls finals at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games in Rosa Khutor, February 10, 2014. (Credit: REUTERS/Mike Blake)

The Olympic games are about sports and the excitement of watching gifted athletes compete at the highest level. They’re also about making us cry.

During Monday’s prime-time broadcast, NBC achieved that second goal courtesy of its simultaneously touching and blatantly tear-jerking coverage of Canadian skier Alex Bilodeau’s attempt to triumph in the men’s moguls event. Bilodeau was aiming for his second gold, having won previously at the Vancouver Olympics in 2010. A video segment that aired prior to his trips down the Sochi course focused on that quest for an unprecedented Gold No. 2, but even more so on his relationship with his older brother, Frederic, who has cerebral palsy.

“He probably would have been a three-time Olympic champion,” a choked-up Bilodeau said of his sibling. “He has the motivation.”

During that video segment, Bilodeau was crying. I was crying. Bob Costas was probably crying, although that could have just been his increasingly toxic case of pink eye, which has now spread to both eyes and, possibly, every NBC viewer who dares to look in the general direction of his ocular regions. (Poor Costas, man. That has to hurt.) The point is: The Bilodeau back story was moving, and it made his competition the most compelling one of Monday’s broadcast.

With a setup like that, anyone who didn’t already know the outcome of the moguls event had to assume Bilodeau wasn’t going to blow it and come in eighth place. He didn’t. While NBC built the suspense, constantly pointing a camera at Frederic as he cheered on the sidelines, Bilodeau shot through a flawless run that powered him straight to gold, and then straight over to his brother for a big hug, which, naturally, was captured on-camera. At certain moments, the whole thing felt a little exploitative, as if Frederic’s disability was being milked shamelessly for NBC’s Olympic storytelling gain. But Frederic looked so genuinely thrilled for his brother that it was tough not to share the joy. So fine. Mission accomplished, NBC: You manipulated our emotions just like you usually do during Thursday night episodes of “Parenthood.”

The other big skiing story of the night was Julia Mancuso, the previous gold and silver medalist who earned Sochi bronze after tenacious downhill and slalom runs in super combined alpine skiing. The NBC broadcast taught us many things about Mancuso: that she trains in Hawaii; that she can play the ukelele; that, when asked to do so by an NBC reporter, she can actually provide color commentary on video of a downhill race she just finished; and that she works with a “body guru” prior to competing.  I don’t know this for a fact, but I feel pretty sure that her body guru is probably the same person who taught her to play the ukelele. But hey, man, who am I to engage in guru second-guessing? Whatever Mancuso’s been doing obviously worked. Now she has an Olympic medal of every color, and the U.S. has another medal to add to its Sochi tally, which, as of Monday night, stood at five. (Unfortunately, NBC failed to show Mancuso’s medal ceremony in prime time; same goes for Bilodeau’s. Apparently there wasn’t enough time, what with all the constant re-airing of seizure-inducing commercials for the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas.)

Sadly, there was no figure skating on Monday, which left an entire nation feeling swizzle-deprived and bereft of triple toe loops. Instead we got: speed skating! Which isn’t as elegant, but involves people often wiping out on the ice. So there’s that.

Most of the drama in those two speed events — the men’s 500m speed skate and the men’s 1500m short track — came from what I shall refer to as the Smeekens Incident. That was the moment in the 500m when it initially looked like the Netherlands’ Johannes Smeekens had won gold, but then it turned out something was wrong with the timing mechanisms and Michel Mulder, also from the Netherlands, actually won it instead. Basically it was “Thrill of victory for Smeekens! … No, wait, agony … Is it agony? … Yes, it’s agony … But thrill of victory for that other guy from the Netherlands!” Actually, the bronze medalist in that event was from the Netherlands, too, and also happened to be Mulder’s twin brother, Ronald. Congrats, Netherlands! On a related note, once this whole Olympics thing settles down, it seems like the Mulder twins from speed skating should really get together for happy hour with the Dufour-LaPointe sisters from skiing. I feel like they’d have some things to talk about.

As for the 1500m short track, several dudes slipped on the ice during the various rounds, Canadian Charles Hamelin ultimately won gold, American J.R. Celski failed to place and Apolo Ohno — once an Olympic speed skater, now an announcer of Olympic speed skating — attempted to ratchet up the intensity by referring to the competition as “a chess game” and “a mind game” and, also, “a game of inches.” Basically, his point was: It’s a game. And it’s one that this time around, Celski, supposedly the next Ohno, didn’t win.

NBC’s Monday prime-time coverage closed by reminding us that Shaun White’s much-anticipated half-pipe event will be shown during Tuesday night’s broadcast. According to yet another uber-dramatic video segment and the commentary of Cris Collinsworth, the recently injured gold medalist is extra-anxious about competing, especially with all the snow-covered facilities turning into bumpy, less-than-optimal slush piles due to Sochi’s mild temperatures. The emphasis on White’s nervousness was an obvious tease designed to make us tune in again the following night. When we inevitably do, undoubtedly the Shaun White story will be the next one trying its damnedest to make us cry.

Jen Chaney is a pop culture writer whose work appears regularly in The Washington Post, New York Magazine’s Vulture and The Dissolve. She’s currently working on a book about the movie “Clueless,” to be published next year by Touchstone.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows


Loading Comments...