The Winter Olympics are quaint. Cozy even. I say this having enjoyed every Winter Games since Sarajevo (1984) indoors, thermostat set at or near 70 degrees. The Winter Olympics are made up almost entirely of events that I have never so much as attempted. Sledding down Vermont hillsides — even on “blades” designed like skis — doesn’t qualify me to speak with authority on the luge. As for alpine skiing, merely staying upright became an Olympian feat for me, so what Lindsey Vonn and Mikaela Shiffrin will do the next two weeks in PyeongChang, South Korea, is, like Nicklaus’s golf swing: a game with which I’m not familiar.
We need these PyeongChang Games, and especially considering North Korea and South Korea will compete as a unified team of athletes. Even if this is some kind of scripted drama Kim Jong-un is waving in the face of western interests — “As Donald divides, we unite!” — the symbolism of conflicting nations coming together for two weeks of sports is . . . well, it’s quaint. Perhaps we, as a planet, can share a warm international hug amid the snow and ice.
The Summer Olympics are held in places we all know, at least from coffee-table books and travel brochures: Los Angeles, London, Athens, Barcelona, Rio. (And yes, Atlanta qualifies as an international destination.) The Winter Olympics are held in places — sometimes villages — we couldn’t locate on a map before the Opening Ceremonies: Albertville, Lillehammer, Torino, Sochi. (I lived in Torino for a year as a young boy. No gold medal won there in 2006 impressed the natives like the most recent Juventus win on the pitch.) Salt Lake City has but one major-league team, named after the great music of New Orleans and with no championship banner hanging from its arena. But the Winter Games found Salt Lake (in 2002) and they were a fun — quaint — two weeks, welcome so shortly after the horror of September 11, 2001.
Rare are the Winter Olympic heroes who have staying power in the American sports consciousness. (March Madness is almost here!) Dorothy Hamill, Eric Heiden, and Scott Hamilton took their skills on ice to national prominence, but none of them had a movie made about their lives, as Tonya Harding has for her villainous role at the 1994 Games in Norway. And that’s part of the magic of the Winter Olympics: There’s so little actual drama that when things do go sideways, Hollywood demands the rights.
Only at the Winter Olympics do we discover “curling” and “skeleton” are athletic events yielding gold, silver, and bronze. (Skeleton is a form of bobsled, just minus the protective ice-chariot. Thus the name, I suppose.) The idea of firing a weapon with your lungs and legs on fire may seem like a stretch until every four years men and women compete for a total of 11 gold medals in biathlon. Don’t look for an American on the podium in this competition. This is considerably ironic when you compare the number of guns in this country with the favorite in the biathlon relay, Norway.
There will never again be an Olympic team like the 1980 U.S. hockey club that beat the mighty Soviets. (For the first time since 1994, the NHL is not sending players to compete in the Games.) But over the course of two weeks just south of the DMZ in South Korea, there will be moments and memories. Perhaps Vonn’s last Olympics will carry headlines, or perhaps it will be Chloe Kim’s first (she’s a snowboarder with a smile that makes her helmet a crime). PyeongChang will enter our living rooms this week with an introduction to a region beyond the reach of many. The Winter Olympics will — again — enter our hearts, however foreign short-track speed-skating may seem. And that’s perfectly quaint.