The 20th Winter Olympiad started while we slept, early on Saturday morning. Skaters with torch helmets and the best of American ’80s music highlighted the opening ceremonies. Lithuanian athletes marched to the strains of “Video Killed the Radio Star.” And global attention returned to countries that haven’t been in the world spotlight since the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
The Summer Olympics has long been a forum for boycotts and hostage situations, a place where political agendas sometimes outshine talented athletes. Politics play no role, however, in how fast you get down an icy hill on skis or in a sled. Even more so than the 2004 Athens Games, these Olympics will serve as a two-week reality show on the extended networks of NBC. As William Rhoden pointed out on Sunday morning on ESPN’s “The Sports Reporters,” we observers will learn the names of Norwegians and Ukrainians, only to forget them as soon as their event is completed.
But what’s wrong with that? Whether we recognize the names of the athletes or the techniques they use to win, a championship performance is just that — a championship performance — something wholly good and easily appreciated by sports fans of any ilk.
Broadcasters included, few people know anything about the majority of Winter Olympic events. NBC’s Tom Hammond could muster little analysis Saturday night as he watched American pairs skaters Rena Inoue and John Baldwin. The duo made pairs figure skating history when Inoue, with the help of Baldwin’s toss, spun and landed a triple axel. About the Chinese pair of Zhang and Zhang, Emrick proclaimed, “I don’t know what it is; I just really have a good feeling about this team.” You’re right, Tom; you don’t know what it is, and neither do we.
What we do know: Last night, when Zhang Dan, the female member of this surname-sharing squad, continued their free skate despite falling dangerously on the ice, she showed the spirit that won her country a silver medal and the admiration of even those who fear China’s rising power.
There is something fun about watching a sport you know absolutely nothing about. Beyond alpine skiing or ice hockey, with which Americans are acquainted, sports that are totally foreign to us often provide more interesting material for discussion. Saturday morning, Torino officials handed out this year’s first gold medal to German biathlete Michael Greis, who had slipped by the Norwegian Ole Einar Bjoerndalen, a gold medalist in four events at the Salt Lake games.
This was in the 20K men’s biathlon — a competition that requires the athlete to cross country ski around a circuit five times, shooting targets from prone and standing positions at the conclusion of each lap. Bjoerndalen missed one of five targets at his first prone and first standing stations, costing him a minute of penalty time. He lost by 16 seconds.
Nevertheless, his gold-medal pedigree glowed in the Italian snow. At the final standing station, where he needed to be perfect to maintain any hopes of victory, Bjoerndalen made a costly error. Having composed himself after 15K of grueling activity, he began the rhythmic cacophony of shots and shell ejection. But in the fast exchange, he ejected a bullet that he had yet to shoot. Confused? Basically, Bjoerndalen had a fifth target to hit and no ammunition to shoot; his round lay prone in the snow as his body had one lap before.
But at that moment, American viewers saw something that they could recognize: a superior athlete with ice running through his veins. Like Peyton Manning improvising on a broken play or Mariano Rivera escaping a bases-loaded situation, Bjoerndalen carefully went about solving the puzzle. Finally, he replaced the bullet, composed himself again, hit the final target, placed his rifle on his back, and continued to his final lap.
As he pulled that trigger in vain, however, Bjoerndalen had to have known that his gold medal aspirations were disappearing quickly. But there was no panic in his eyes, no haste in his motions. He had a problem, so he fixed it. Viewers need not understand the subtleties of the biathlon to know that this was a champion.
So even if you don’t know anything about the events, watch these Winter Games. Not as a favor to Dick Ebersol, the chairman of NBC Sports, but rather because you’ll see something oddly familiar: Winners. Plus, people sliding head first down an icy track at 80 MPH make for pretty exciting television.
Nicholas Thorne is a sophomore in Pierson College. His column appears on Wednesdays.