We have less than a week of Winter Olympic fun left, and aside from a few faulty hotel doors and temperatures to make northern Minnesotans jealous, Sochi has delivered the goods. It has been mercifully free of geopolitics, which is a blessed change from the run-up to the Games, which included terrorism fears and an awful lot of criticism of and fixation on Vladimir Putin. (Though I agree that Russia has its share of woes that deserve attention and that Putin is, for the most part, an unpleasant autocrat, it isn’t hard to detect a nasty edge in some of the coverage of Sochi that wasn’t around in Beijing, and almost certainly will not appear in Rio.)
That is a topic for another time, though: at the Games, the focus should be on the athletes above all else. While the U.S. is right up near the top of the medal count table, it doesn’t seem like the Americans are winning a whole lot so far. Aside from the ice dancing duo of Meryl Davis and Charlie White, who floated to gold dancing to “Scheherazade,” the U.S. doesn’t really have the elite skaters it’s used to. Shaun White didn’t deliver, Bode Miller is old, and the American speedskaters aren’t that good, no matter how much they try to use their suits as excuses. American breakthroughs have come in sports like skeleton and bobsled, which don’t usually grab headlines.
But that is part of the delight of the Olympics: it gives a sudden spurt of attention to countries that have become known for certain sports, often in ways one would never guess. There’s the Jamaican bobsled, of course, but watch events in some of the more obscure time slots and you’ll learn all about Latvian and German sledding, Slovenian and Polish ski-jumping, and the Dutch speedskating fans. I’m not sure what to think of some of the representatives of tropical nations, who often moved to the U.S. or some other first-world country at a very young age, or even might be wealthy foreigners who have somehow managed to gain dual citizenship somewhere. (Mexico’s Olympian is Exhibit A of the latter.) At times this looks more like a publicity stunt or a way of sneaking into the Olympics and avoiding stiffer competition in one’s own country, but if it’s accepted and boosts interest in the home country, there’s no need to impose a purity test.
The Games also focus the spotlight on sports that are otherwise mostly ignored, and sometimes these sports are genuinely fun to watch. Snowboardcross, despite sounding like something a group of kids made up while sledding in their backyard, is great fun, with snowboarders racing down a hill and crashing, their performance free from the whims of judges. Short-track speedskating has similar thrills, and the biathlon makes things exciting by adding firearms. Being a cross-country skier, I enjoy the races, particularly the storied 4×10 relay, the skiathlon that forces skiers to both skate-ski and do traditional skiing, and the 50k marathon on the final day of the Games.
Figure skating has its moments of artistry but is often overrated; the new team competition did nothing for me, and the men’s free skate was an anticlimax, with all of the top contenders falling all over themselves. Curling looks like something that would be fun to try—and it’s a pretty big deal here in Duluth, which has put people on the past two Olympic teams, and seems to be an excellent excuse for drinking while allegedly doing physical activity—but, I’m sorry, it is deathly dull as a spectator sport. Moguls look fun enough, but the scoring system—a garbled formula involving time down the hill and judges’ marks—seems about as arbitrary as it gets. Judged sports in general are more susceptible to confusing outcomes, though there was nothing arbitrary about the skating of Russians Maxim Trankov and Tatiana Volosozhar, or in the monster jump by the Belorussian aerials gold medalist. There’s another unique country strength for you: Belarus swept the aerials, and is right up among the leaders of most gold medals at the Games.
The hockey tournament is reaching its climax as well; the U.S. women will play archrival Canada for gold on Thursday, while the men, fresh off the heroics of Warroad, Minnesota’s T.J. Oshie in a round-robin game with Russia, will take on the Czech Republic in the quarterfinals. I’ll admit to being a bit of a skeptic of this year’s U.S. team, but the Russia win is the sort that can bring a team together; while the road will be about as tough as it gets, the Americans have the skill to play with anyone, and as long as they can do that, anything can happen. It only took one period of Latvia-Switzerland to remind me why Olympic hockey is so enjoyable, as the big ice sheet opens up more space for creativity and free-flowing play. While I wouldn’t go quite as far as Adam Gopnik in his takedown of contemporary North American hockey—just win, baby—I do love hockey when it’s played in the tradition of Anatoli Tarasov, with perpetual motion and puck possession. The more we see that style of hockey, perhaps with some Herb Brooks-esque tweaks, the more hockey wins.
Oshie’s Sochi heroics even made it into primetime on NBC, a rare occurrence for the sport. Of course it is chic to deride NBC’s coverage, particularly when it comes to the inevitable tape-delays, though to be honest, I’d rather have the Olympics in the hands of NBC than any other network. In most sports, they deliver, with a classy look and veteran commentators; in hockey, football, and Premier League soccer, their A teams are as good as any. They have a deep bench of quality commentators, though even they can only go so far, and some of the more obscure sports employ former athletes who don’t exactly provide enlightening commentary. (Are they really getting paid to say “oh!” in alarm every time a skater falls?)
Still, I do have one big critique of NBC’s coverage: sometimes it feels more like the Today Show than an actual sporting event, a problem that was only exacerbated when Matt Lauer was hauled in to substitute for Bob Costas when he went down with his eye affliction. (Why not Al Michaels?) Public interest stories are nice, but they have a habit of catering to the lowest common denominator, and there are only so many ways to hear athletes say certain canned clichés. The focus on a handful of select Americans expected to do well is good for their publicity—we’d probably never hear of them otherwise, and non-major sports need icons to get some attention—but it makes for painful theater when they lose, and NBC’s sideline reporters track down the fallen stars.
The end result has its flaws, but with those flaws, it isn’t a bad portrait of the world we live in. It’s a planet of quirky diversity with visible but malleable hierarchies, united by a handful of universals, many trite or empty, but a few which penetrate much deeper. There are always glints of gold to be found.