Friday, February 12, 2010

Winter Olympics -– I still buy into the notion of the Games

The Winter Olympics begin tonight with the Opening Ceremonies, which I assume will last about eight hours on NBC.

I hate to sound jaded, but to be honest, once you’ve seen one Opening Ceremony you’ve seen them all. The ONLY thing that matters is the entrance of the athletes. The rest is fluff, time-filler and, frankly, boring. If I think about it, I’ll try to tune in near the end when the Canadian team walks in. Seeing the host country’s athletes walk into the stadium is usually a chill-producing moment.

As it happens, I’m one of those guys who still buys in to the notion of the Olympics—especially the winter games where so few of the athletes are stars in the marketing world. More likely, they’ll have 15 minutes of fame if they medal or produce a remarkable performance. Lindsey Vonn, if she can get down the mountain on her injured shin and win a couple of gold medals will be selling a lot of products in the near future, but she may be the list. There are no figure skating stars (at least going in) who are likely to follow in the footsteps of Peggy Fleming, Janet Lynn (still my all-time heart-throb) Dorothy Hamill, Katerina Witt or even the infamous duo of Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding.

NBC will certainly try to create stars. It will spend a lot of time focusing on the snowboarders because they’re trying to pull in a younger audience and the U.S. is very good at snowboarding. We’ll see a lot of skiing and a fair bit of speedskating although there aren’t as many U.S. medal contenders—particularly on the women’s side—as in past years. Of course you never know. Someone could come up with the performance of a lifetime.

Most of my favorite Olympic moments—the U.S. hockey team in Lake Placid aside—involve athletes most people have never heard of or might vaguely remember. When Brian Shimer won a bronze medal in bobsledding in his fifth and final Olympics—his first Olympic medal ever—in 2002, I thought that was a very cool story. I had the pleasure of being there in 1984 when Jeff Blatnick, having beaten cancer, won the superheavyweight gold medal in Greco-Roman wrestling and wept on the mat when it was over.

I remember a lot of swimming moments because of my background as a never-was swimmer. I remember all of Mark Spitz’s swims in 1972 but my most vivid memory is of his last race: the 100 freestyle. There was a Russian swimmer in the lane next to him (I can’t remember his name anymore) who came out of the pack in the last 10 meters to get the bronze medal. At that point in time he might have been the first Russian man to medal in swimming but in any event, no one had expected him to medal and he did. He was so thrilled that he held up three fingers to Spitz, “going ‘three, three, I finished three,’ while Spitz just kind of looked at him as if to say, ‘yeah so what, I’m Mark Spitz and you’re not.’ I thought the guy being that excited was great.

I remember seeing Bobby Hackett, who I’d known a little from local meets around New York (we were in different age groups so I never actually had the chance to get my butt kicked by him) winning a silver medal that same year and being awed that a kid from Gator Swim Club could do something like that. Like everyone, I remember Michael Phelps in Beijing but my most vivid memory is Jason Lezak’s amazing anchor leg in the 400x100 freestyle relay that allowed Phelps’s quests for the eight gold medals to stay alive. THAT was thrilling.

The Olympics have changed completely since I first began watching them as a kid and even covering them as a young adult. Everyone who takes part now is a pro, the old Avery Brundage myth of “amateurism,” having been put away years ago. That’s good in the sense that you don’t have Soviet athletes who are allegedly factory workers when their fulltime job is clearly playing hockey or figure skating or running track. But there’s also a loss of some innocence there: The Miracle on Ice can never happen again because the hockey tournament is an NHL tournament, the players divided by countries instead of by cities. I remember when Dr. Gary Hall was considered a marvel when he qualified for his third Olympics as a swimmer in 1976 because once you finished college in those days you had to go get a job.

Now, swimming is a job for anyone who is world class, which is why Phelps will swim in his fourth Olympics in London in 2012 and that won’t make him unusual at all. Swimmers are like all other professional athletes now: they keep going until they aren’t good enough to get paid anymore.

All of which is fine. And I will still think it is cool if U.S. bobsledder John Napier, whose Army unit deployed to Afghanistan this month (he may follow them next month) can win a medal. If, as people say, this is the year the Americans can add a second Nordic skiing medal to the silver Bill Koch won in 1976, that will be a good story. I’ll watch a lot of the skiing because it is fun to watch the skiers charge down the mountain on the brink of disaster at any given moment.

One thing I do have trouble with is NBC’s approach to the Olympics. Even in Vancouver, where the Pacific Time zone should make it possible to televise a lot of events live in prime time, a majority of the coverage will be taped. You can bet you won’t see Vonn or Bode Miller skiing much before 11 o’clock Eastern Time most nights and it will be on tape. Great sports moments should be LIVE, you should sit there not knowing who won or who lost or what will happen in the next instant.

Even if you do the, ‘don’t tell me who won,’ thing, most of the time you can figure out from the timing who won and who lost while you’re watching. Plus, in today’s world especially, it is almost impossible to resist the urge to find out who won. So, I’ll watch a lot, but the fact that much of it will be on tape will take some of the enjoyment out of it for me—and for others.

The Olympics are still two weeks I look forward to whenever they take place. I’ve had various ideas for books that would have involved the Olympics but never gone through with any, mostly because the books I’d like to do on Olympic athletes would be decidedly un-commercial. I wouldn’t be caught dead writing about figure skating. Speedskating or bobsledding or luge would be more up my alley.

Cue the syrupy music, it’s time for Bob Costas to tell us how spectacular the Opening Ceremonies are. Of course that’ll be live—the one thing that doesn’t need to be live. I’ll check in on Saturday when the competition begins.


Anonymous said...

Well stated John! The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat!

Jim said...

"Wouldn't be caught dead writing about figure skating?"

But John, you could call it, "Feinstein On The Rink".

Tim said...

Sorry John, but 'Feinstein on the Rink' is a picture I just can't see happening....too funny.

John from Indiana said...

David Halberstam wrote a terrific book on the U.S. Olympic Crew team, called "The Amateurs." I want to say it would have been the 1980 or 1884 rowing team, and it really illuminated the commitment to excellence and the endurance required of olympic rowers. I would guess the book was not a great commercial success, but a terrific read, just the same.

John Blough said...

The world yearns for a book from Junior about curling.

I met Frank DeFord at the 1998 Olympic Curling trials and he was trying to get a flavor for a column. He never did write it (or I never found it).

Anthony Warren said...

I read Halbertam's insightful read into a world I knew nothing about. He did a great job bringing out the different psychological aspects of each athlete.

Anonymous said...


I too used to think "once you've seen one opening ceremony you've seen them all." Then I saw China's opening ceremony... Unlike any other and don't expect I'll ever see anything quite like it again. Spectacular!

As for the games... the NHL olympics are alright, and luge is insanity, it's all entertaining... more entertaining than most reality TV that's on these days... at least the athletes have some talent.

Oh and I love watching curling every four years, I don't know why, but I do.


cd1515 said...

totally agree.
the one unique thing sports has over plays, movies, etc is drama... you don't know how it's going to end.

NBC has taken that away to create a TV show.

I won't watch a second of it.