The Better Olympics
Tonight, the Winter Olympics begin, and while it’s not a particularly popular perspective this go around, what with Covid, the Uyghur genocide and other human rights violations by China. Add in the censorship and espionage directed at the athletes, foreign delegations and media, the multiple calls for boycotts, and the simple fact that many of the broadcasters will be calling the action from studios in Stamford, Connecticut, and well, just the basic belief that the Winter Games are the ugly stepsister of the Summer Games, a lot of people have already announced their intention to pass on viewing this time around. I believe however they are all making a mistake, because when it comes to viewing, there are very few sporting events, Olympic and otherwise, that can hold a candle to the Winter Games.
Now, I understand why more people watch the Summer Games. There are more athletes from more countries competing in more events than at the Winter Games. Probably more importantly to most people, those events are predominately athletic contests that most people played growing up. Running, swimming, diving, bicycling, gymnastics, basketball, volleyball—It’s basically summer camp on steroids (I swear steroids in this case is merely intended as a metaphor).
The Winter Games, on the other hand, have three kinds of events: those people can’t do, those they’d would never want to do, and those which no one in their right minds should even think of doing. As opposed to the Summer Games where the worst that can happen is a runner pulling his hamstring and having to sit down, almost every event in the Winter Games can lead to death or dismemberment. Even the most benign event, the biathlon involves a few hundred competitors—most of them speaking different languages—running miles through the forest in the height of winter with guns. This year we add in the prospect of Russians and Ukrainians roaming the woods with rifles, while their homelands are on the verge of possible war. What could possibly go wrong?
Skiing is another interesting sport as many people ski, but do any of them believe their experience would be enriched with hair pin turns at 95 miles an hour? There is also the relatively new category of skiing and snowboarding events euphemistically referred to as “Big Air” in which athletes launch themselves off highly pitched ramps, perform multiple flips and spins, and then regain some form of contact with the ground. Here’s something to ponder: at the Summer Games there is no event that has a helicopter standing by in case a competitor has to be medevac’d to a hospital for life saving treatment, while at the Winter Games, airborne search and rescue teams have priority seating.
The more one compares events directly, the better the Winter Games becomes. At the Summer Games, people run around on a track. For those who are smart enough to tune into the Winter Games, they watch Speed Skating. Instead of there being a handful of runners who occasional bump in into each other, there are competitors, each with sharp blades on their feet, who often lose their edges and go sliding off of the ice track, occasionally taking out their rivals as they go by.
While this alone would be one of the more intense events at the Summer Games, it’s relatively tame as far as winter sports go, as there is also an event called Mass Start Speed Skating, which is pretty much exactly as it sounds. 24 competitors start in one big group and make 16 trips around the oval, and just for good measure, there are four sections, including one at the end, in which the race suddenly becomes a sprint with extra points given to the three fastest skaters. Think NASCAR on ice.
In the summer, we’re offered rhythmic gymnastics in which we watch a group of people twirling ribbons. In the winter, we’re treated to pairs skating in which two skaters are required to do rapid spins while in close proximity to each other, each with their legs, which once again have a sharp blade affixed to the end, extended. Picture a human Cuisinart.
For people who like the speed of downhill skiing but want to see the teamwork of Figure Skating, there is the bobsled. In this competition, there are teams of two or four people in each sled, sailing down a narrow, twisting, and banked ice run at 90 miles per hour, often finishing the race upside down and sometimes even flying off the track completely. Not to be outdone, there is the luge. I picture the origin of this sport happening when a group of daredevils came upon a bobsled run, and one said, “Bet I could slide down the run, feet first, lying on my back so I can’t see where I’m going and I try to steer with my feet.” “I like it,” responded another, “but what if you do that with Günter riding on your stomach? We’ll call it the two-man luge.”
Finally, at the Summer Games, very few sports require the participant to wear a helmet, while at the Winter Games almost everyone has to. Nuff said, but while we’re on the topic of clothing, at the Summer Games, athletes wear shorts, bathing suits, and in the case of beach volleyball, bikinis. At the Winter Games however, everyone’s in Lycra/Spandex bodysuits. Obviously each style provides its own esthetic value for the viewing audience, but at the risk revealing too much personal information, or my browser history, let’s just say, I enjoy the Winter Games.
It’s not surprising that if you asked anyone old enough to remember, what sports were shown in the opening sequence of “ABC’s Wide World of Sports,” everyone would be quick to say the ski jumper careening off the ramp, but they would be hard pressed to tell you any other part of that intro. And that’s the essence of the Winter Olympics. While the Summer Games are viewed haphazardly, with attention mostly focused mostly on those moments when Simone Biles or Katie Ledecky were going for a Gold, the Winter Games are viewed like the equivalent of that awful crash you slow down to look at as you are drive by. You know you shouldn’t, and you hope everyone’s okay, but deep inside you really want to see something horrific. Buckle up, and enjoy the games.