This post was originally published at smerconish.com
Once again, the Olympics are upon us. It’s not a particularly popular perspective, given that many look at the Winter Games as the ugly stepsister of the Summer Games, but I’ll share it anyway: 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, this event should be the most widely anticipated of the Olympics because it will be done near the Korean DMZ. What could possibly go wrong?
Skiing is another interesting sport as many people ski, but do any of them believe the experience would be enriched with hair pin turns at 95 miles an hour? There is also an entirely new category of skiing and snowboarding events this year 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 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 at 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 two competitors, each with sharp blades on their feet, who often lose their edges and go sliding off of the race track, occasionally taking out their rival as they go by.
While this would be one of the more intense events at the Summer Games, it’s relatively tame as far as winter sports go, so the powers that be rectified the problem by adding Mass Start Speed Skating to the agenda. Mass Start Speed Skating is pretty much what it sounds like. 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 all offered rhythmic gymnastics in which we watch a group of people twirling ribbons. In the winter, we’re treated pair figure skating in which two skaters, in close proximity to each other, are required to do rapid spins with their leg, which once again have a sharp blade affixed to the end it, outstretched. Picture a human Cuisinart.
For people who like the speed of the downhill skiing but want to see the teamwork of Figure Skating, there is the bobsled. In these competitions, there are either two or four people in each, sailing down narrow, twisting, and banked ice runs at 90 miles per hour, often finishing the race upside down and sometimes even flying off the track completely. Then there is the luge. I picture the invention of this sport happening as a group of daredevils came upon a bobsled run and one of them said, “What if I 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 and we call it the two-man luge?”
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, the Summer Games, feature athletes wearing shorts, bathing suits, and in the case of beach volleyball, bikinis. At the Winter Games everyone’s in Lycra/Spandex bodysuits. Each style provides its own esthetic value for the viewing the 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 “ABC’s Wide World of Sports” what sports were shown in the opening sequence, everyone would remember the ski jumper careening off the ramp, but 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 at those moments when Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt was 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 driving 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.