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Random Musings on Sochi and Beyond February 24, 2014

Posted by craftlass in Olympics.
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I love the Olympics.

Once upon a time, I played and watched a lot of sports. Participating is far more fun than watching, of course, but I enjoyed both. Then I became an adult and busy and I realized that watching sports was harming everything else in my life, between allowing my emotions to be affected by the performance of a bunch of strangers and the sheer time-suck of it all, a time-suck that continues to grow with things like Thursday Night Football and extended seasons and the fact that there are more 24/7 sports channels than news channels.

So I quit. I follow the scores of my favorite teams in a very casual way and am happy when they do well, but I ignore them when they don’t. If a game is on in the room I’m in, I might watch for a bit, but it’s usually while doing other things, too. It’s just not a focus anymore.

Except for the Olympics.

I compress every bit of my love of athletics into about a fortnight every other year. I do my best to watch everything, even the sports I’ve never been drawn to before (at least for final rounds). It’s impossible to watch it all, of course, but it’s fun to try! I set up my own private little sports bar during the overnight (here in Eastern Time) coverage, with TV, laptop, and tablet showing events while my phone let me look up more information. I mostly gave up on sleep, working during the days with round robins being played out in the background, making sure my partner saw the best action in the evenings, and completely junking out overnight. It was absolutely worth it. Watching full events is the only way to truly enjoy the experience.

Why the Olympics? Well, despite all the corruption and politics that are absolutely worth ranting about, in the end, the Olympics are about the athletes. Many of them are in sports that get little support or even respect in the non-Olympic years, yet require even more dedication than the sports that pay millions. Many come from countries that simply can’t afford to support sports. Most have given up their childhood years entirely to pursue their dreams, and have outlasted talented people who just couldn’t take the sacrifice anymore. Just getting to the Olympics is a win, and medals are gravy for most of the competitors. It’s the only competition I can think of where coming in last place is winning, in a major way, because it means you will forever be in the great list of Olympians.

There is simply nothing else like it.

When American freestyle skier Heidi Kloser broke her femur and tore ligaments during a training run before the Sochi Games began her concern was, “Am I still an Olympian?” This sums up the importance of just being there. Watching her crutch her way through the Opening Ceremonies was both heartbreaking and inspiring. It was a reminder of just how dangerous and difficult these events are and the bravery and dedication of those who compete.

The best of the best make it look easy, most of the time. It’s quite the illusion!

Speaking of freestyle skiing, this particular Olympics was special for the inclusion of a dozen new events and a greater level of gender equality. Women’s ski jumping was probably the most important addition in Olympic history, it’s a travesty that it took this long and I’m looking forward to a day when women have just as many ski jumping events as the men (the women competed only in an individual Normal Hill event, the men have individual events in Normal Hill and Large Hill as well as team events in both and then the whole separate male-only Nordic Combined discipline that is made up of ski jumping and cross-country skiing). Meanwhile, all of the other new events were added for both men and women. Are things entirely fair and equal yet? No. Is this progress? Yes.

Those women really can fly!

Not only did Sochi include more events for women, it added the first mixed-gender events outside of figure skating/ice dancing to be held at the Winter Olympics. Biathlon, that wacky and shockingly fun-to-watch mix of cross-country skiing and shooting, included the first Mixed Relay event, with teams of 2 men and 2 women. Meanwhile, over at the Sanki Sliding Center, there was the first Team Relay in Luge, consisting of one run each by a solo man, solo woman, and a doubles team.

Granted, the equestrian events of the Summer Olympics remain the only sport with true parity (as men and women compete as true equals in that, both individually and in team events, the latter doesn’t have any rules as to gender make-up of a team, even), but there is just something wonderful about watching men and women work together in sports that used to divide them entirely. The addition of team events to what used to be only individual ones is also a great way to get people who normally compete to work together, which will elevate the performance level of their sports for the future much more quickly, I suspect.

Back to biathlon for a moment: Why doesn’t America have an amazing biathlon team? Really. Plenty of Americans cross-country ski and we own the most guns. Why are we not great at combining the two? We even have multiple courses left over from past Olympics to train on!

This Olympics was my favorite yet. One reason was NBC stepping up their coverage in many ways, there wasn’t even a need to watch the lame primetime coverage to catch any particular sport, since all were streamed live and many were broadcast live on NBC’s multitude of TV channels. The primetime coverage was more like a highlight show in this format. London 2012 was similar, but there are simply less events in the winter variation, and thus more sports made it to TV. The best part was the higher-quality commentary in these live broadcasts, showing that NBC’s B-team of commentators is far more talented than their A-team (when they used different teams for each, of course).

My personal Best Commentary award goes to the team of Terry Gannon, Johnny Weir, and Tara Lipinski. They made the primetime team look like fools. Figure skating was an exception to my normal sports rules this year largely due to this team covering the Grand Prix series and NBC should be applauded for having them do the full live coverage as well as the primetime gala. Weir is perfect for this role, he shares all sorts of interesting background (including what it feels like to jump, fall, train, and compete at this level), explains the scoring well, clarifies the things that often confuse the casual viewer, and does it all with humor and class. He’s the first commentator, to my knowledge at least, who competed under the current scoring system, and it makes his opinions and the details he points out far more informative than the former skaters who competed under the old rules. If NBC had not hired them, I would have watched the entire Olympics via the BBC instead. NBC should really just go ahead and make them the only figure skating team, it would vastly improve all coverage of the sport.

The inclusion of Vladimir Pozner as Russian expert was simply a great idea and I hope NBC is already lining up a Brazilian equivalent. He not only taught me a few things about Russia, but he inspired a few missions to learn more on my own!

NBC is famously awful at covering the Olympics and they own them until 2020, at least. The primetime coverage is biased towards not only American athletes (which makes some sense, of course) but the good-looking ones. I hate the effect this has on me, because I often find myself rooting against the athletes they anoint with high levels of coverage, just because I want NBC to lose. I’m working on my own part in that, but it would make the Olympics much more enjoyable if they just chilled on the opinions and extended fluff pieces and showed the sports as they happen.

The glory of the Olympics is that flukes happen. Sometimes they aren’t even flukes at all, they just seem that way because we’re exposed to distorted opinions and most of us don’t follow these sports. Favorites often lose. Athletes that have had tough seasons often suddenly perform at their best when they enter the Olympic arena. The Olympics are full of pressure and emotions that influence performance in even the toughest competitors. Julia Mancuso often gets shafted in favor of a certain blond competitor, but she comes alive on the Olympic slopes and is a joy to watch even when she doesn’t medal! Adelina Sotnikova has been the pride of Russia for years (and specifically groomed to win this year) but was displaced for a little over a month by her younger Russian peer and used her anger over it to give a brilliant performance and secure that gold medal (more on that in another post). Mario Matt of Austria has been a great slalom competitor for years, with 14 World Cup titles under his belt, but had only finished as high as 34th in the Olympics before this one, when he became the oldest man to win a gold medal in alpine skiing. Meanwhile, talented racing snowboarder Vic Wild, who almost quit entirely due to a lack of support for his sport in his homeland of America (you know, the country that made snowboarding a thing?), showed how important it is to support our athletes by winning both his events for his adopted homeland of Russia, while the recently-rechristened Viktor Ahn did the same in short track skating with even more golds after leaving South Korea. Redemption is a beautiful thing!

Meanwhile, it seems that a major lesson of the men’s hockey tournament is that teamwork matters and all the talent in the world is not enough if you don’t know how to play well as a unit.

Frankly, if the favorites always won, why bother having Olympics at all?

To top it all off, I’m a huge fan of Russian arts, and the way they incorporated their vast and exceptional culture into the Games was simply beautiful. I’m showing some bias here, of course, but there is something special about a nation celebrating ballet and poetry on the largest of stages. Then there’s the wonderful choice they made in both the Opening and Closing Ceremonies to highlight their space program’s accomplishments, even including the first female astronaut, Valentina Tereshkova, in the flag ceremony at the opening and naming the child characters in the closing after her and Yuri Gagarin. I have a ton of issues with Russia, especially regarding human rights, but I applaud them for celebrating truly the best they have given the world, from Tchaikovsky to exploration. Life is not black and white, and nations are not so simple to understand. This is one of the reasons we need the Olympics, it showcases both our similarities and differences, and how the politics and the people of a nation are not always easily related. As Pozner said near the end of the Closing Ceremony:

It’s a land that many, many people have had problems understanding, and then, it’s because of its really turbulent and strange at times history. But it’s an incredible country with an incredible history that has given the world enormous richness, and that’s the culture that we’ve been speaking about. It’s… it’s special. But then again, all countries are special, each in its own way.

Yes.

I can’t figure out how to close this, because I could write for hours more about just this Games, but must include a recommendation that you check out Cracked’s excellent piece on why boycotting the Olympics is always a bad idea.

Part of me is sad the Olympics have ended again, but part of me is sick of watching sports and ready for a year-and-a-half rest. My scheme is working perfectly!

Except I’ve decided to return to sports myself, not just fitness, but sports. I’m not sure how this will play out (decisions, decisions) and I know I’ll never be competitive in anything (I’m middle-aged now, after all), but those men and women sure made it all look like a lot of fun! In the end, isn’t that what all sports should be about?

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