King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Olympics postscript: On ratings, streakers, drugs and why Bode Miller deserves infamy. Hint: Not because he didn't try.


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Salon Staff
February 27, 2006 10:00PM (UTC)

And so, with more absurdist Vegas camp masquerading as high art in the Closing Ceremonies, another Olympics comes to an end. As always, these Winter Olympics turned out to be pretty entertaining, even for snow sports-dissing, stick and ball sports-loving landlubbers like me.

The curling rocked, of course, even before the streaker in the poultry loincloth showed up. The hockey was amazing, the men's gold-medal win by Sweden over Finland as tense and thrilling as any NHL Game 7, and the women's upset of the U.S. by Sweden as surprising and inspiring as they come.

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The world was introduced to snowboard cross, an X Games-type event that's actually entertaining. And to a bunch of the sport's practitioners, whose attitudes were sometimes as puzzling as they were refreshing.

Americans have collectively decided that these Games were a bust for the Red, White and Blue, even though the U.S. team had a better medal showing than at any other Winter Games except 2002, which was on home ice and snow.

But expectations were high, and almost all of the highest-profile athletes failed to deliver, from Michelle Kwan's injury to Bode Miller's self-inflicted fizzle, with a squad of Johnny Weirs, Sasha Cohens, Jeremy Blooms and female hockey players in between.

Could have been worse, though. We could be Norwegians, who actually care about these sports during the other 206 weeks of each Olympiad, and who won two gold medals here, tied for 13th place with China, one behind Estonia. This would be like the U.S. winning fewer gold medals in a Summer Games than Bulgaria.

The easy cultural take on the Turin Olympics is that NBC's coverage got beaten in the ratings by "American Idol" and "Desperate Housewives," and therefore nobody cares about the Olympics anymore. I think that's too easy.

NBC's 20th century, tape-delayed approach to the Olympics is what the world has passed by, not the Games themselves. The network's Olympics Web site, where more timely results and highlights were available, groaned under record traffic.

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The way people want to consume an Olympics has changed, and if NBC ever catches up, it'll do fine with the Games. Its next chance will be in two years, when the Summer Games will be held in Beijing. That is, Eastern Daylight Time plus 12 hours. The Olympic day will be ending just when most of America's is starting.

And even though NBC expected to and could have done better, we shouldn't go too far with the idea that its Turin ratings were so low they proved Americans aren't interested in the Olympics anymore.

The Daytona 500, the Super Bowl of NASCAR, set an all-time record with an 11.3 rating on NBC last Sunday. That was at the low end of the range of NBC's Olympic ratings.

How is it that NASCAR has become a juggernaut that's taken over the American sports landscape while the Olympics are a forgotten relic of the past, but the Olympics mostly outdraw NASCAR?

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Here are a baker's dozen more final thoughts on the Turin Games, because heaven forbid I should have any unexpressed thoughts.

1. Just so I don't feel left out, my 15 cents on Bode Miller:

The lesson of Bode Miller is you can't be a maverick loser.

If you're going to thumb your nose at the establishment, you're going to do it your way, you're going to eat it up and spit it out, you have to win. If you don't, your unorthodox ways just become an excuse, a cover for your failure.

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You become that kid who loses at Monopoly, overturns the board and storms off, saying, "I didn't want to win that stupid game anyway."

A large part of the commentariat seems to have agreed on a stance that Miller's sin wasn't losing, it was not giving his best effort. I'll let two good writers, Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post and Bob Kravitz of the Indianapolis Star, speak for the class.

"America could forgive and forget if Miller had come here and tried his best and at least acted like this was important to him," Kravitz wrote.

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"The fact that he didn't win a medal at these Games, going 0 for 5 in the Alpine events, is beside the point," Jenkins wrote. "It's not the winning, it's the trying."

Excuse me?!

What country do Kravitz, Jenkins and everyone else pursuing this line of reasoning live in?

In the America where I live, the fact that Bode Miller didn't win a medal is exactly the point. There's no way America forgives and forgets an athlete as hyped as Bode Miller for not winning a medal. No freakin' way in the world.

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If you don't believe me, ask Alex Rodriguez, the best baseball player on the planet and a well-spoken, hardworking solid citizen who is vilified at every turn by the American press and public for not having won a championship. And that's in a team sport, where he only controls so much.

All that talk of the Olympic spirit and how competing is more important than winning is fine for any number of American athletes with little hope of a medal. It's fine for various biathletes and ski jumpers and Emily Hughes.

But for the elites, the ones who've been sold to us as winners, the point is to win, not just to try. If Bode Miller had shown up in shape, worked his ass off and gone 0-for-5, he'd still have been roasted.

And you know what? Good for us Americans for being that way. Why shouldn't we demand success from those among us who have shown they're capable of it? Why should we pat our underachievers on the head and tell them it's OK?

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Sometimes an honest effort just isn't good enough. That's fine, and honest efforts should be applauded. But there's no reason to kid ourselves into believing that we think not good enough is anything other than not good enough. It isn't, and I suspect that's one of the reasons we're good enough so often.

I'm going to get called an ugly American for writing that, for believing that trying isn't good enough for elite American athletes, that it's all about winning. Maybe so. But I defy you to find me a cross-country fan in Norway who doesn't feel that way about the Norwegians.

It's not the winning, it's the trying? Good grief, people, this is the country that gave Michael Phelps a hard time for only winning six gold medals!

2. The best thing about Sunday night's Closing Ceremonies took care of the biggest problem with the Winter Olympics. Well, the biggest problem other than all those boring sports.

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As part of the ceremonies, after the clown marching band and the skaters with the flames coming out of their heads who were such a hit at the Opening Ceremonies, and before the clowns on scooters and the clown floating above a giant fan, the Greek national anthem was played.

That's the big problem. The Greek national anthem is depressingly absent from the Winter Olympics. Love that Greek national anthem.

The giant fan was pretty cool too, by the way.

3. If the Closing Ceremonies were still going on right now, do you think NBC's Dan Hicks and Mary Carrillo would have gotten over the fact that cheesy pop songs were being featured? Think they'd have gotten past that by now? Me neither.

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4. Officials administered a reported 1,200 drug tests, a 71 percent increase over the last Winter Games, in 2002. And there was one positive. One. In Salt Lake, seven athletes tested positive out of 700 tests.

So, thanks to the crackdown by world anti-doping forces, we've gone from 1 percent of the tests coming up positive to 0.083 percent. Problem solved! Glad we cleared that up.

Drug tests performed on the Austrian cross-country skiers and biathletes following the raid on their quarters that reportedly turned up dozens of syringes and unlabeled drugs came up negative. The International Olympic Committee says the investigation is ongoing.

Positive tests are not required to punish athletes for drug use, the IOC says. It takes circumstantial evidence into account.

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That's probably wise, because drug testing is obviously one of the most abject, spectacular law enforcement failures since Prohibition.

Either that or the Olympics are now suddenly a collection of the cleanest, most drug-free saints ever gathered in one place. On second thought, yeah, I'm sure that's it.

5. Was I the only one creeped out by all those women dressed as brides near the end of the Closing Ceremonies? And the woman who officially signaled the extinguishing of the Olympic flame was recently retired Italian skier Isolde Kostner.

Was this three-time Olympic medalist dressed as an athlete? Nope. Full bridal drag, and looking uncomfortable. All the brides were supposed to be symbolic of hope and the future. There were no grooms in sight. Just creepy.

6. After Kwan pulled out of the Olympics, I wrote that in figure skating, the Olympics are everything. Many figure-skating fans wrote in to say that's not true, that world and national championships are important, and you can't just judge a skater by his or her Olympic performance.

If that's so, how to explain the incredibly high rate of choking in the Olympic figure-skating finals, especially in the most prestigious of those, the women's?

Is there any other competition, in figure skating or elsewhere, in which such a high percentage of the athletes succumb to pressure? The women's gold medalist in Turin was simply the only top skater who didn't fall down.

The answer is no, and the reason for that is that the pressure is so incredible. And the reason the pressure is so incredible is that nothing matters like the Olympic final.

American Sasha Cohen is being praised in some quarters for battling back, for recovering from her two early mishaps to skate beautifully the rest of the way and win a silver medal. Well, of course she skated beautifully. The pressure was off.

7. OK, one last thing on the Closing Ceremonies. I get Andrea Bocelli, the Italian tenor, singing a song. I get Canadian pop star Avril Lavigne singing a ditty about living today like it was the last day of her life or something during 2010 host Vancouver's presentation.

But what was the deal with Ricky Martin singing some please-come-back song? What did he symbolize? Puerto Rico's proud Winter Olympics tradition? Oh, I have it: The fleeting nature of Olympic stardom. Or, no, wait: Is Ricky Martin still a star in Italy?

Maybe he just has the same booking agent as Lavigne. "You want Avril you gotta take Ricky. Whattaya mean Ricky who? That World Cup song, you schmuck. Yeah, he'll sing it, but he gets to do his single first."

8. How big a star can half-pipe gold medalist Hannah Teter be? I think that pretty much depends on how big a star she wants to be, and on someone figuring out a way to harness her easy charm, which probably doesn't fit into any of the templates currently in use.

9. All of the news reports about the streaker at the bronze-medal men's curling match mentioned his "poultry loincloth" like that was some kind of weird thing.

That was a great little episode. The British team, which is made up of Scots, was sweeping away when the streaker made his appearance. When the stone came to rest, one of the three sweepers could be heard saying, "You see the streakah?"

The streaker could be seen from above in the next shot, the overhead camera that looks down on the house, the target-looking thing. As he danced around, one of the Scots laughed, "Is he Scottish?"

Hench-network MSNBC played it serious. Analyst Don Duguid laughed, but said nothing. Announcer Don Chevrier said, "A little disturbance here in the arena and there's a slight delay before the game resumes." MSNBC then switched to a long shot of the arena, from which you could barely make out security subduing the streaker.

Before MSNBC cut away to a commercial, you could actually hear Duguid, a jovial former curler, straining himself not to say anything, no doubt ordered silent by the network voice in his ear.

10. The intruder during the Closing Ceremonies -- I know, I promised -- was a little more disturbing. Clad in a black T-shirt with white lettering advertising a gambling Web site that often takes out ads on the backs of boxers, he ran up to a microphone while some bureaucrat was talking and shouted something in Italian.

NBC's Carrillo assured us after a while that the man wasn't a terrorist, just a prankster working on behalf of the Web site.

Well, that's comforting. Sure, he could have been a madman with a weapon who got through security and reached center stage at the most-watched event on the planet at that moment, but, not to worry, he wasn't.

11. In short-track qualifying races, the top two finishers move on. Nice to see Apolo Anton Ohno of the U.S. finally get his uncontroversial gold medal, but how many times do you think he's going to have to wipe out while trying to pass the leader from second place in a qualifying heat before he figures out what a bad idea that is?

12. It never occurred to me how important the horizontal stripes on the stockings are to the aesthetics of a hockey uniform before I got a load of the Nike-designed suits worn by most of the teams in these Olympics.

13. I've discovered that watching 24.6 hours of television a day for two weeks is a lot easier than watching 70 hours of television a day for two weeks. In this way, the Winter Olympics is a lot better than the Summer Olympics.

I'll admit that in a lot of ways three hours of watching luge feels like one hour of watching, say, volleyball. My brain prefers volleyball, but my sacroiliac was happier with the sledders.

This story has been corrected since it was first published.

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