Allow me to confess that I am a Winter Olympics junkie. This is an unlikely affliction for a man who doesn’t ski or skate and hates cold weather. As is often the case with perplexing addictions, I got hooked as a kid.
If memory serves, I was first exposed through ABC’s Wide World of Sports. That program began in the 1960s as a Saturday afternoon curiosity and ultimately morphed into the template for ESPN. It’s not often that weekend filler evolves into a network of its own; but cheap programming, I suppose, is as seductive to broadcast executives as the women’s biathlon now is to me.
Of course, modern Olympics telecasts hardly qualify as cheap programming; but back in the day, some of the more exotic events in the winter games filled the bill.
Bobsledding, yes; skating, not so much
At any rate, somebody at ABC decided to mount a camera on the front of a four-man bobsled before a practice run to show the audience what the driver experiences descending the track. For me, it was love at first sight.
Bobsledding proved to be my gateway into the arcane world of frozen sport. Previously, I’d had no idea there were so many interesting ways to break your neck.
Yet, for all of the fascinating hours I’ve spent watching Nordic types hurtling through space, I still don’t get figure skating. That’s unfortunate because the lion’s share of primetime coverage is devoted to the enterprise. The usual explanation for the sport’s disproportionate popularity is that women like it. They may, but they’re certainly not alone.
I paid a twilight visit to a south city saloon last Saturday. The afternoon drinkers had cleared out and the night crew had yet to arrive, so I basically had the joint to myself.
That is, except for a solitary figure at the far end of the bar. He was a nondescript white guy — middle age, stocky build, close-cropped gray hair, flannel shirt and jeans. Seemingly oblivious to his surrounding, he stared intently into the flat screen mounted on the wall before him, watching the women’s short program in the team figure skating competition.
He cheered lustily when the American skater, Ashley Wagner, performed and then launched into a profanity-laced tirade when her Russian counterpart, Julia Lipnitskaia, was more generously graded by the judges. His behavior would have been unremarkable if he’d been watching, say, a Rams-Steelers game but to see a grown man shouting obscenities at the image of a 15-year-old girl in sequins was disconcerting.
The problem, I suspect, is that figure skating is more art than sport. Admittedly, you need superior athletic skills and superb conditioning just to train for the acrobatic routines the talented skaters perform. But unless skaters fall on their behind, there’s really no way for the layman to reliably distinguish between their efforts.
This lack of obvious criteria, in turn, gives rise to suspicions that the contest is rigged — a notion advanced by the perceived tendency for the host country to receive the benefit of doubt in the judging. The fact that the competitors dress like Liberace furthers the impression that they are entertainers rather than athletes.
A race is a clear-cut proposition. Ballet on ice is ballet nonetheless…
Other things to look for in the winter games include, but are not limited to:
Ski Jumping: Originally called “ski flying,” I’m pretty sure this sport got started accidentally. Somebody was trying to repair a snow-covered roof or ski an unfamiliar trail when sudden disaster struck. “Oh, my God! Look at Sven a-flyin’ through de air!”
It was certainly no accident that footage of an unsuccessful jumper was always used to illustrate the “agony of defeat” in the introduction to Wide World of Sports.
Cross-Country Ski Racing: The grueling sport tests the endurance of competitors and viewers alike. Excellent opportunity for the latter to catch a long winter’s nap, but set an alarm in case there’s a sprint finish.
Curling: It’s shuffleboard played on ice with chamber pots and brooms. Probably not coincidental that the sport’s popularity has grown as efforts to legalize marijuana have advanced. “Dude, pass the brownies…”
Luge: Racers in this event are properly called “sliders,” an appellation most St. Louisans will associate with a discount hamburger chain. Ironically, luge racers traverse their twisting course only slightly faster than said burgers make their way through the digestive system.
Short Track Speed Skating: NASCAR without the cars. Sport combines the charm of Roller Derby with the strategic deliberation of Whack-A-Mole. “Bring me another beer, will ya, babe?”
Spontaneous Celebration: Russian skater Olga Graf was a surprise bronze medalist in the women’s long track 3,000. Momentarily lost in euphoric transport, she unzipped her speed suit down to her navel while waving enthusiastically to the crowd only to suddenly remember that she was wearing nothing beneath it.
What’s not to like about this stuff? Enjoy.