At the end of my last column, I naively suggested that after the build-up to the Super Bowl, the Winter Olympics would provide a great outlet for the abundance of American Spirit traditionally lost after the climax of football season. In retrospect, this prediction made about as much sense as seeing Rob McElhenny in last week’s “Lost.”
I had forgotten, quite foolishly, that no one really cares about the Winter Olympics. So far, the most exciting news out of Vancouver for me was hearing that a current Yalie’s sister won the first gold medal for the United States in the women’s mogul.
That said, I can’t wait for another classic showdown in women’s skeleton between the United Kingdom’s Shelley Rudman and Mellisa Hollingsworth of Canada. Oh, and the men’s 4×7.5 km biathlon proves to be equally enthralling.
Let’s face it, the Winter Olympics are a huge letdown. I was casually flicking through the channels on Friday night, having forgotten entirely about the opening ceremonies, and nearly mistook them for public access coverage of Inuit Got Talent. The athletes even looked unimpressed.
After a few seconds of reflection, this disappointment with the Winter Games makes sense: Who are these athletes and what are they doing?
OK, so you could argue the same about many of the athletes in the Summer Games, who lurk behind the scenes in under-televised sports, gaining their due notoriety only once every four years. The main difference, however, is that it’s much easier for most Americans to relate to a swimmer, a runner or a rower — while these are also not big-market sports — than it is to relate to a curler or a short-track speed skater. For most of us, these sports seem like obscure hobbies, and personally I spend more time during the competition asking myself how the hell these people become professional curlers than marveling over their textbook “Chip & Lies.” (What???)
We get excited about our Summer Olympic athletes because we can connect with their sports, even the less mainstream ones. Swimming and track and field aren’t weekly staples on ESPN, yet these are inexpensive sports with millions of participants at all levels across the countries. Almost every public school system can support programs competing in these sports, and as a result, there are millions of viewers and fans that become passionate during the Summer Games.
Recreational skiing is a significant winter pastime, and hockey is a major market sport, but on the whole, the sports featured in the Winter Games are not accessible because of their cost to competitors — not to mention climate restrictions. Maybe there are not many beach volleyball players outside southern California, but I don’t think it’s too hard to imagine why people prefer it to the luge.
And finally, you have to admit, half of these events are just plain boring! Many of the skiing races, as well as all of the skeleton, bobsleigh and luge are timed track runs. Without competitors side-by-side, how would Jason Lezak find that superhuman strength at the end of the men’s 4 x 100 m freestyle relay at the Beijing games to pull off an impossible victory against the world-record holder?
That is what makes the Olympics special; the story of the underdog, the improbable victor elevated to greatness by the thrill of competing on the world’s largest stage. I am not arguing to change the nature of these sports, but perhaps something can be done to make these competitions the transcendent, global event that they embody.
This is the Olympic Games, so why does it feel like No-Names On Ice?