King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Michelle Kwan: Only the Olympics matter, and she never won. Plus: Skiing, luge, snowboarding, race cars.

Published February 13, 2006 8:00PM (EST)

Michelle Kwan's withdrawal from the Olympics Sunday meant that Emily Hughes, who actually earned the spot on the U.S. team that Kwan had taken by petition, will actually get to skate. It was an ugly situation righting itself.

But if you forget about that, her announcement was a genuinely sad moment.

Michelle Kwan is everything you want in an Olympic athlete. She's great at what she does, a nine-time U.S. and five-time world champion. She's also gracious, classy and down-to-earth.

She respects her sport and the Olympic Games. She's attractive but not intimidatingly so. She gives thoughtful answers to interviewers' questions. You could hang with Michelle Kwan. She's the kind of person it's nice to root for.

And when things fell apart for her this weekend, she held her head high and said she was sad but she'd just have to deal with it. She's a champion, through and through, and that's why she's so well loved.

All I have to do is think something less than laudatory about her and I get a dozen angry e-mails. It's worse if I actually write it down.

Having petitioned her way onto the team despite missing most of the skating season with injuries, Kwan reinjured her groin in practice Saturday. Saying she'd promised to withdraw if she weren't 100 percent, she stepped aside for the 17-year-old sister of Sarah Hughes, who beat Kwan for the gold in 2002.

What's really sad is that for all the comforting talk that Kwan will be remembered as one of the greatest skaters of all time despite never having won Olympic gold, she won't be remembered as one of the greatest skaters of all time because she never won Olympic gold.

Favored twice, she took silver in Nagano, Japan, in 1998, losing to Tara Lipinski of the United States, before settling for bronze in Salt Lake. And that's just not good enough.

In a syrupy video tribute to Kwan late on NBC's prime-time broadcast Sunday, Jimmy Roberts, the Sultan of Syrup, intoned over images of Ted Williams and Dan Marino, "The history books are filled with Hall of Famers who never won their sport's biggest prize. Now Kwan sits shoulder to shoulder at their elite level."

But she doesn't.

The sad fact is that, except for insiders and hardcore fans, figure skating is a sport that really only matters at the Olympics. And in sports that really only matter at the Olympics, you're judged by how you do at the Olympics.

Kwan did well. There's nothing wrong with winning a silver and a bronze -- unless you were supposed to win two golds.

For all her success, the outstanding fact of Kwan's career is that she never won Olympic gold. That's not how it is with Ted Williams or Dan Marino, however convenient those video clips were.

People sometimes mention what a shame it is that those two or some other great team-sport players never won a title, but that's not the dominant fact of their athletic lives. No one seriously says about Williams, "There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived -- but he never won the World Series."

A better comparison for Kwan would be an all-time great boxer who never won a world championship. I'd give an example, only there's no such thing. Black fighters, including a few all-time greats, were denied title shots well into the 20th century, but there are no all-time great boxers who were given a chance at a world championship and never won one.

Just as, unfortunately for Kwan, there are no all-time great figure skaters who never won the Olympics.

Figure-skating people will put her in their Hall of Fame and forever think of her as a member of the pantheon. But for the rest of us, she had two chances to prove her greatness and she didn't answer the bell.

"If you don't have an Olympic medal, or Olympic gold, you're not recognized as much as somebody that would," said American skier Daron Rahlves before finishing out of the medals in the men's downhill. His is another sport that only really matters at the Olympics.

"If somebody won one gold medal in the Olympics and nothing else," Rahlves said, "they'd be remembered."

Kwan will be remembered too. She'll be remembered for never winning a gold medal.

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How to improve Alpine skiing coverage [PERMALINK]

NBC uses a technology called SimulCam that allows us to see a replay of two downhill skiers' runs at the same time, as though the skiers were really racing each other.

The effect showed how gold-medal winner Antoine Deneriaz of France beat silver-medalist Michael Walchhofer of Austria early in the men's downhill final on a part of the course called the Angel's Jump. The superimposed images of the skiers approached the jump together, but Walchhofer flew way up into the air, arms flailing, while Deneriaz stayed low to the ground.

Deneriaz appeared to ski right under the flying Walchhofer and take the lead. As the two continued down the hill, Deneriaz looked like he was in front by a good 15 feet.

SimulCam is the result of a partnership between Sportvision -- the company that brought you the yellow first-down line, among other things -- and a sports video analysis company called Dartfish.

Here's a technical innovation that would make downhill skiing a lot more fun to watch: Live SimulCam.

You know how the TV graphic shows the leader's time at each split and compares the current racer's time to it instantly? That's helpful, because to the layperson, a great run down the hill looks exactly the same as one that's only pretty good. So you find yourself watching the clock, not the skier, to find out how he's doing.

I'd like to see the "ghost image" of the leader's run on the screen with the live skier as he goes down the mountain, so it looks like the two are racing down the hill. That would look like a real competition, instead of like a race against the clock.

Work on that, people who work on these things.

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Luge: The ultimate Winter Olympics sport [PERMALINK]

So the luge is on and I'm thinking out loud: "Who invented this sport, anyway?" The wife says, "I think drunken college students."

A little online research, not that you can trust this Internet thing, reveals it was really 19th century Alpine loggers, who'd race each other home down the logging roads.

Same difference.

To me, the luge is the ultimate Winter Olympics sport. Not only does every run look exactly alike, with tenths of a second separating winners from also-rans in a three-minute-plus race, but the athletes don't even move.

"Look how flat and relaxed he is on the sled!" the announcers will say as a luger zooms down the course on his back, motionless. All around the world, kids burst into kitchens shouting, "Hey, Mom and Dad! I saw a guy today and he was flat, relaxed and immobile!"

"So did I," says Dad, an undertaker.

The worst thing about luge is that the crashes aren't even spectacular. A crash means the guy slides down the run next to his sled instead of on top of it.

Luge couldn't have been invented by drunken college students. They'd have thought of a few interesting twists.

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Opening Ceremonies [PERMALINK]

My favorite moment of Friday's Opening Ceremonies -- and there were a lot to choose from -- was during Yoko Ono's bizarre little rant about peace -- it seems she's for it -- when the NBC cameras caught a quick shot of some American athletes glancing at each other as if to say, "Who's the old chick?"

I also liked the Ferrari race car doing donuts, the Kyrgyzstani team's hats, the acrobats forming themselves into the shape of what Bob Costas said was a white dove so why not believe him, and the long, long, endless, long, really long, really slow walk of that Olympic flag by Sophia Loren, Susan Sarandon and some famous female activists and athletes.

Wherever they were going with that flag, I think they must be almost there by now.

The whole thing, as always, was kind of a crazy outdoor Vegas revue, with seemingly unconnected events -- a race car doing donuts, I kid you not -- in between "Cats"-like dance numbers, with every prop, every stitch of clothing, "symbolizing" something.

The sentence you are now reading symbolizes the snorting of milk through the nose as one laughs at the latest silly element of the Opening Ceremonies, like in-line skaters somberly shooting flames out of their heads to symbolize -- uh -- my notes are here someplace.

And good gosh, is Brian Williams a stiff or what? I never thought I'd miss Katie Couric.

But you know who I really missed? Björk. The Olympic Opening Ceremonies have to be the only event on the planet where you find yourself thinking, "You know who'd fit in perfectly right here? Björk."

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Let's see, 10 times 0 is ... [PERMALINK]

American snowboarder Shaun White, the prohibitive favorite in the men's halfpipe, fell on his first qualifying run Sunday and had to wait around to try to qualify on his second, which he did. After he told NBC interviewer Tina Dixon that it was "just annoying" that he'd fallen, she asked him, "Have you ever felt that kind of pressure before?"

"Honestly," he said with a chuckle and a weary shake of his head, "I haven't felt that pressure since I was so young."

He's 19.

White, who later in the day won the gold medal, tried to get across the magnitude of the Olympics: "It's like X Games times 10," he said.


White visited with Costas in the NBC studio Sunday night and the two discussed the effect wearing his gold medal out on the streets would have on White's chances to hook up with figure skater Sasha Cohen.

"Couldn't hurt," he said. "Maybe we both might get 'em and we could just wear 'em out. I don't know, I'm just throwing that out there."

"I'm sitting here feeling like Chuck Woolery," Costas said.

The X-Games-style sports don't do much for me. Too many take-your-turn competitions -- one competitor does her thing, then the next takes a turn -- governed by subjective judging. Variations on figure skating, one and all. But on the whole the athletes seem to be a lot more personable and likable than those from the more traditional sports. That's something.

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The couch symbolizes the spirit of competition? [PERMALINK]

Thanks to TiVo, I spend almost no time watching commercials anymore, but zipping by, I've seen just enough to know two things:

Thing one: Those video vérité Bode Miller Nike commercials are, in the immortal words of Shaun White, just annoying.

Thing two: If there's a statistically significant number of people out there who understand what the heck is going on in those Coke commercials where the guys in the red warmup suits are doing cheerleading routines in a living room, pretending to bobsled on the sofa and so on, then I have officially reached middle age. Because I'm baffled.

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The hole symbolizes Turin's piazzas -- no, really [PERMALINK]

So do those gold medals work in any DVD player?

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Hench-items [PERMALINK]

  • Did you see that snowboarder named Gary Zebrowski? If you didn't, did you picture a black Frenchman from Tahiti just now? Because that's what he is.
  • "Coming up," came the announcement just before a commercial break, "we'll take a closer look at an athlete who truly embodies the Olympic spirit."

    Just once, I'd like to get a closer look at an athlete who's anathema to the Olympic spirit. "Up next, a profile of a guy who's all about the Benjamins, hates foreigners and thinks the Olympics are a big joke. But he's really fast."

  • Speed skater Chad Hedrick, who became the first American gold medalist of these Olympics Saturday when he won the 5,000 meters, is a 50-time world champion in-line skater. You can't hear two sentences about the guy without hearing that one.

    Fifty-time world champion? What? Do they name a new world champion every two weeks in that sport? Is every competition a world championship? Are there no regular-season matches? I ask these rhetorical questions rather than bothering to find out the answers, about which I couldn't care less.

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