A few thoughts on the ongoing Olympic Games in Russia:
• I’m drawn to the Winter Olympics largely by an admiration — latent four years at a time — for human beings doing things extraordinarily difficult. Follow me on this. The Summer Games are built around running, swimming, cycling, wrestling . . . activities most of us do semi-regularly at one stage of life or another. (By wrestling, I include games of King of the Hill in elementary school.) Not that any of us can sprint like Usain Bolt, but we can all imagine what Bolt experiences, a fast-forward version of what we do when the dog gets off his leash. Most of us have made it across a pool, or over a wave at the beach. So that gold medalist in the backstroke? We get her.
But I’ve been on ice skates. I’ve been on skis (both cross-country and downhill). As easy as it may be to mock figure skaters — the costumes, the makeup, the tears — it is next to impossible for an average human being to look graceful spinning on ice skates. And skiing down a mountain at 80 mph, with turns required (and jumps that take you half the distance of a football field)? There is nothing inherent, nothing God-given in the ability to remain upright at the bottom of that mountain. It’s sheer talent wrapped in bravado.
And then there’s snowboarding, specifically the halfpipe, the realm of Shaun White. Even shorn of his famous red locks, the Flying Tomato will execute three (four?) spins twenty feet above the lip of an icy ramp, with a flip thrown in . . . and land safely back in the pipe on his board. I’d be astonished if this were done by a stuntman on the set of an action movie, let alone in competition with dozens of others competing for White’s gold medal. A question: How does an athlete try such a maneuver the first time?
All this said, I remain skeptical about the luge and bobsled. With these Winter Olympic standards, it seems the star of the show is gravity.
• Is it possible that Olympic athletes in the Information Age are actually less memorable than those that stood atop a podium before the Internet could tell us so? The face of the 1976 Winter Games was Dorothy Hamill. In 1980, among individual competitors, it was Eric Heiden. Bill Johnson became a household name in 1984, then Katarina Witt stole the show in 1988. (Freshman year in college, the guys in my dorm had what today we’d call watch parties when the East German beauty took the ice.) But think back just four years, to Vancouver in 2010. Who was the face of those Olympics? Lindsey Vonn maybe? Isn’t she now the face of Tiger Woods’s latest flame? Maybe I’m being nostalgic. But the saturation of coverage we get for two weeks every four years seems to blend Olympic stars into a blurry mosaic of gold, silver, and bronze.
• Speaking of the Internet, NBC’s primetime coverage from Sochi will lose much of its punch with the results of events long known by much of the viewing audience. (Sochi is ten hours ahead of Memphis.) So here’s a brainstorm for the tech wizards out there: A device that Internet browsers can use to mask any mention of Olympic results until a user chooses to find them.
• I love the Olympic hockey tournament. Save for soccer’s World Cup, this is among a very few international events where a team from the United States is a decided underdog. Even packed with NHL players, the American team in Sochi is not as good as the Russians, Swedes, or defending champion Canadians. There will never again be a Miracle on Ice. The 1980 U.S. team represented a victory more of lifestyle and culture than sport. But the U.S. will someday win another gold medal in hockey. I’ll be watching — and pumping my fist like an unruly patriot — when we do. (The U.S. team plays at 6:30 am this Thursday, then at the same time on Saturday and Sunday.)