The Winter Olympics are on and I am watching them, at least when there’s nothing better on TV. That’s worth saying, I think, because I have no affinity for ice or snow, or the games played thereon. I like the cold so little that, a dozen years ago, dear wife Susie and I picked up stakes and moved to the Phoenix area, where it’s always warm. For us, winter now is something that happens elsewhere, and a frequent subject for gloating over our wise choice. That we will watch sports we otherwise wouldn’t cross the street to see—especially an icy street—is testimony to the power of the five-ring Olympic symbol.
As a sports writer I sometimes needed to cover winter sports, and did so at three Olympics—at Calgary in 1988, Albertville, France, in 1992, and Lillehammer, Norway, in 1994. My strongest memories of those stints have nothing to do with the things I was paid to watch and write about.
My main recollection of Calgary is of sitting on the balcony of my apartment basking in sunshine and temperatures in the 60s while officials scrambled to stage skiing events amid melting snow and blowing dust. In Albertville I discovered a quiet little restaurant just outside the perimeter of the press center that featured the local Savoyard cuisine, which is delightfully heavy on cheeses and cream sauces.
The Lillehammer Games prided itself on being “green,” which in practical terms meant that the city didn’t salt its streets or sidewalks after the almost-nightly snowfalls. This led to crashes of various kinds and degrees of severity. I took a flop one evening on an icy sidewalk outside the hockey arena, to the vast amusement of a group that had gathered to witness such mishaps. After I brushed myself off I joined the throng to laugh at the misfortunes of others. Great fun.
While no one doubts that many winter-sport competitors fully embody the athletic virtues, the question of whether the Winter Games are necessary has been raised by many. Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic movement, didn’t like them because they lacked universality, which is to say that most of the world’s 200 or so nations don’t have the frosty regions needed to foster participation.
Events also are lacking. Television’s desires dictate that the Winter Games span the same 17-day, three-weekend period as the summer ones, but while the Summer Games burst at the seams, winter schedules are sparse. Thus, organizers have been forced to pad them with Evel Knievel stuff like snowboarding and freestyle skiing, which belong more in a circus than in a sports fest, and the slo-mo game of curling, a sort of animated shuffleboard.
The best example of the cobbled-together nature of some Winter O events is biathlon, a combination of cross-country skiing and rifle shooting that resembles nothing so much as the Russo-Finnish war. An apt way to turn it into a “tri” would be to add the destruction of an armored car with a hand grenade.
Even perfectly good winter sports turn weird when passed through the Olympic sausage grinder. Speed skating is a favorite pastime of rosy-cheeked types of many lands, but instead of lining up these guys and gals on a big frozen lake, shooting off a gun and declaring the first one across the finish line a winner, Olympic honchos have decreed a pairs-against-the-clock format with lane-changing rules that defy explanation, and put it in giant indoor facilities that cost many millions of dollars to build and sit idle once the Games are over. If a camel is a horse designed by a committee, “metric” speed skating is a sport designed by a committee of camels.
All the downhill ski races, and many others on the O card, are run in an individuals-against-the-clock format in which the drama isn’t on the course but in the seconds ticking away in a corner of your TV screen. Too many events involve judges, most of whom are prejudiced against our fine, wholesome American athletes. The main question in the ice-chute events of bobsled and luge isn’t who’ll win but who’ll survive.
There are a few good things about the Winter Games. Every four years they prove that hockey can be played without punches being traded, and it’s fascinating watching the icicles form on competitors’ noses and mustaches during the cross-country skiing races.
And who can resist the figure skating? Sequined costumes! Radical makeup and hairdos! Dazzling smiles!
And that’s just the men!