A year and a half ago, Michael Phelps became an international superstar, drawing the attention of the nation and anyone who watched the Summer Olympics in Beijing. He attracted the spotlight as he blew the competition away, winning eight swimming gold medals.
On Saturday, Apolo Anton Ohno, possibly America’s most recognizable winter Olympian, quietly notched his first medal of the Vancouver games, tying the winter record of five medals won by a single athlete. Compatriot J.R. Celski grabbed the bronze in the same short track race.
The two events are seemingly incomparable, on the one hand you have the biggest superstar in the country wowing the world, on the other there’s a pair of hardworking ice skaters barely crossing the finish line in time. Why should anyone care about the Winter Olympics?
The answer lies, as it almost always does, in the details. If you watched Ohno and Celski’s short track race you would have noticed how the lead changed numerous times. How, for the entire 1,500 meters, it was impossible to predict the medalists. How a South Korean attempting to pass his teammate caused them both to crash, catapulting the American duo into second and third just meters before the finish line.
Such is the sport of short track and such is the Winter Olympics.
There are countless interesting individual stories in any Olympic Games — from the first Canadian to win gold on home soil to the previously anonymous figure skating pair from China becoming the world’s sweethearts on a Valentine’s Day they will never forget. But that is true of any Olympics, winter or summer.
What makes the Winter Games special, and what Sam Goldsmith failed to realize in his column “Woeful Winter Games” on Wednesday, is that the 1,500-meter short track race highlighted the thrill of the unknown.
No one knew who would take the podium in Ohno’s race and, like Phelps, the short track racers use each other to motivate themselves to cross the finish line.
I could never argue that anyone watching the swimming competition in Beijing or Sydney or Athens could look at Michael Phelps and say to themselves, “Well, I was a pretty good swimmer in high school, I could do that too.” But there is always the guy a half-a-pool length behind the leader all the way in lane eight, who Mr. High School Swimmer thinks he can take.
That’s true of most Summer Olympics sports. Everyone has played soccer or basketball or swam or even ran around in a leotard at age six in their local gym. The Summer Games are a known quantity; they are relatable. That quality makes them entirely fun to watch, but strips them of the mystique of the unknown that pervades their snowy counterpart.
Even if you’re a black-diamond skier or can play ice hockey with the best of them, the Winter Olympics highlight lesser known sports that viewers learn how to play as they learn about the athletes that play them.
I always find myself wondering, how does someone get into a sport like skeleton? Who trains them? Who are these people? That makes me realize the sacrifices the athletes and their families must make to compete in sports that are only played in cold climates or on mountaintops or in ice rinks. To me, it makes their achievements in the Olympics all the more impressive.
A luging race can hold as much allure as a long distance track event because as you watch, you come to realize the intricacies of the sport and learn that the skill and courage the athletes flying down an icy chute exhibit.
It may be obscure and ESPN may never show a freestyle skiing event or a bobsled competition, but I know I’m not alone in thinking that hearing Hannah Kearney — America’s first gold medal winner of the Vancouver Games — give a shout out to Yale hockey in a nationally-televised interview with Bob Costas was totally awesome.
The Winter Olympics have a charm and familiarity that the Summer Games do not. You could argue that it just means there are fewer countries and athletes (you’d be right) than in the summer, and that it means the Games are not truly an international event (there you’d be wrong).
It’s true only five African nations are competing in Vancouver, and that Mexico has only one entry and he is a 51-year-old alpine skier, but you’d be lying if you didn’t cheer for any Jamaican athlete, bobsledder or not, after watching “Cool Runnings.”
The Winter Games are intimate. They allow viewers to get to know all the athletes, to learn how they compete and why they compete and they show off the hidden secrets of their host nations.
My bet is that no one could place Lake Placid or Cortina d’Ampezzo on a map before the Olympics were held there. Few have ever been to Squaw Valley — as a native Californian, I did not even know that was in my home state until this year. But, as the Vancouver opening ceremonies showed us, the true beauty of the host city and country is shown off in the Winter Games because of their intimacy.
The Beijing ceremonies were an impressive, fantastic production; Athens was a touching tribute to history; Atlanta promoted a nation’s best athletes. The Vancouver ceremonies were more understated.
Producer David Atkins’s vision to use the audience as a human canvas paid off hugely as orcas swam across the floor of the arena. Canada’s character was embraced in a high-energy segment featuring tattooed tap dancing fiddlers. A host of indigenous dancers and drummers saw the athletes in to the arena in a moving tribute to their native land. The country’s best musicians, athletes and performers were put on display for all the world to see in this beautiful tribute to a widely diverse nation.
The Winter Olympics will never overtake the Summer Games in popularity, or spectacle, but they present a different kind of international competition. They highlight the beauty of the world’s lesser-known locations and sports. They prove how difficult it must be to excel at a sport that isn’t played by millions of people. They allow for an international community of athletes to truly come together for 17 days and bring their stories to the world.
So the next time you watch a biathlon race, don’t just write it off as a silly sport that combines skiing and shooting and seems like it derived from deer hunting in the arctic tundra. Marvel at the skill these athletes have in their unique sport. Watch Shaun White complete legendary new tricks on the halfpipe, try and understand what happens to his spin when an aerial skier turns his shoulder slightly or what a single bad move can do to a short track skater’s medal dreams.
Appreciate these games for their mystique and cheer on that Ethiopian cross country skiier, become a curling fan for two weeks, learn what a triple lutz is, finally understand the offsides rule in hockey.
You’ll love the Winter Games, I promise.
Brittany Golob is a senior in Ezra Stiles College and a former Sports editor for the News.