Vonn but not forgotten

A night of pairs skating and Canadian hopes for its first home gold, but my mind was on an absent golden girl

Published February 15, 2010 2:16PM (EST)

Without a date on Valentine’s Day, I gathered a couple of sports fanatic friends and settled in to watch NBC’s Olympic coverage last night. My intense hope was that American skiing sensation Lindsey Vonn would be my Valentine, and I would share in her triumph of winning Olympic gold in the women’s downhill. Alas, she would not be mine. Weather conditions over the weekend in Vancouver (the warmest city ever to host the Olympic Winter Games) forced the event to be postponed to Wednesday.

I‘m confident I wasn’t the only one who had my heart broken last night. The media has been salivating over Vonn since the Olympic hype began, and losing the opportunity to promote the talented and gorgeous American star in prime time on Sunday had to crush NBC’s romantic prospects for stellar ratings. With a mountain-sized void in the schedule to fill, the dramatic focus shifted to Canada’s collective quest to finally win a gold medal on home soil. After hosting the Summer Games in Montreal in 1976 and the Winter Games in Calgary in 1988, and failing to win a gold medal, Canada was determined to end the drought as soon as possible in these Vancouver games. That’s all fine and dandy for Canada, but it’s not exactly a story that tugs at the heartstrings here. Not like Lindsey Vonn and her beautiful, badly bruised shin.

The first event of the night began, women’s 3,000-meter speed skating, and within a few laps around the oval, my friends urged me to change the channel to the second half of the NBA All-Star game. Using great powers of persuasion and Olympian determination, I fought them off and stayed the course. Martina Sablikova of the Czech Republic set the fastest time early and held on to take the first-ever gold medal in speed skating for her country. Kristina Groves took the bronze medal for Canada, but it was the wrong color to end the dreaded drought. I wasn’t particularly disappointed to see Sablikova to win, as I follow a lot of women’s tennis, and tend to love Eastern European names ending in “ova.” Maria Sharapova, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Daniela Hantuchova, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. Ova names tend to roll right off the tongue and rattle around in my head. But I digress…

Speed skating soon gave way to figure skating. Before the pairs short program competition began, NBC profiled Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo, a Chinese couple on and off the ice who won bronze in each of the two previous Winter Games. Photogenic and driven, the pair won me over. As luck would have it, they were the first to skate. One of my friends instantly picked up on the song they were skating to, Queen’s “Who Wants to Live Forever” from the movie “Highlander.” It pleased me that my rocker friend found an entry point into pairs figure skating. Shen and Zhao nailed their routine. The announcers gushed. And we suddenly found ourselves rooting for the husband and wife from China. After an agonizing wait, the judges awarded an all-time record score for the short program. NBC’s prophetic piece set the stage and the elegant Chinese couple delivered.

I never thought that men’s luge would ever dominate the headlines of an Olympic Games, but, tragically, this weekend it did. Nodar Kumaritashvili, a 21-year-old luger from the country of Georgia, died horrifically on Friday in a training run crash. Insiders referred to the track as one of the fastest and most dangerous in the world, for elite athletes only. The young Georgian was not expected to contend for a medal and had previously admitted to fearing the course. Officials determined the cause of the accident to be “athlete error” and exonerated the track, but shortened the length of the course in an attempt to keep top speeds down. And the race went on. Felix Loch, a 20-year-old German, took the gold, while his fellow countryman David Moeller won the silver. Veteran Italian luger Armin Zoeggler, gold medalist at the last two Olympics, settled for bronze. NBC closed the luge segment with a tribute to Kumaritashvili, whose difficult name will forever be associated with the Vancouver Games.

Coverage returned to the pairs short program. Completely by coincidence, I’m sure, it was around this time my friends hijacked my laptop to check out photos of Lindsey Vonn in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition (which are pretty damn hot, by the way). I thought I’d lost them. Dan Patrick, looking weird in a knit cap, reminded us the Big Story of the night was Canada’s pursuit of gold as he reviewed last night’s Women’s Moguls. On the last run of the night, American Hannah Kearney stole the gold from Canadian Jennifer Heil. Maybe Canada can break the streak tonight in the Men’s Moguls…

Surprisingly, my friends handed back my computer and paid attention. The hook worked. Qualifying runs introduce us to the players, including Alexandre Bilodeau from Canada and Dale Begg-Smith, the defending gold medalist who was born in Vancouver but represents Australia. The camera finds Bilodeau’s brother, who has cerebral palsy, several times in the crowd. NBC profiles Begg-Smith as an Internet mogul who skis moguls, right before he snatches the top spot on the podium away from a Canadian. My friends and I agree that we haven’t seen guys go this fast since they ran the Chinese downhill in “Hot Dog: The Movie.” And then Alexandre Bilodeau, with his brother cheering him on, lays down a fast and flawless run to overtake Begg-Smith. As the score is posted, Bilodeau, his brother, and the crowd erupt. Begg-Smith golf claps while watching from a couch in the background. One last French skier and then… It’s official! Canada wins gold on home soil! Finally. Now we can stop hearing about it.

It took NBC nearly three hours to mention Lindsey Vonn. We got an update on the weather and Vonn’s shin, which is healing nicely thanks to the weather delays. Even though she ruined my Valentine’s Day plans, I found it within myself to forgive her, and will continue to watch her very, very closely. Though they each had one foot out the door, I coerced my faithful friends into watching the rest of the pairs event. It didn’t do much for us, except leave us dumbfounded. We watched as pairs who had fallen during their routine outscore other worthy pairs who skated perfectly. Although it didn’t affect our favorites, Shen and Zhao, it felt like the fix was in. Why figure skating hasn’t figured this scoring thing out remains a total head-scratcher. Just like the notion that a great guy like me can’t get a date on Valentine’s Day.


By Barry Langer

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Winter Olympics 2010