Another Olympics has come and gone. As usual, it began with stupid political talking points, which this year took the form of lurid fascination with Kim Jong Un’s sister, who represented North Korea at the games. All the geopolitics, as usual, came to nothing. The Games themselves, on the other hand, had their ups and downs amid drama and intolerable talk show-style coverage. Through it all, though, there were still plenty of golden moments in which I could appreciate people attaining greatness in whatever pursuit they’ve chosen.
This was not a banner year for American Olympians, but by the end it proved a respectable one, thanks to a surge in a couple of sports the country has not medaled in much in the past: Minnesota’s Jessie Diggins’ rush to the finish in the cross-country team sprint, immortalized by the call of Duluth’s Chad Salmela, was the U.S.’s first Nordic medal in over 40 years, and a ragtag group of curlers, all but one of whom calls the Duluth area home, set off a night of revelry at the Duluth Curling Club when they stunned the curling world en route to gold. The women’s hockey team’s upset of longtime rival Canada in the gold medal game was backstopped by Maddie Rooney, the former Andover High School star now at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. (Are you sensing a theme here? You’re welcome, America: we Minnesotans, and Duluthians in particular, are your saving grace.)
The one sport where Americans did clean up as expected was snowboarding, where Shaun White cemented his Olympic legacy in the half pipe, and Jamie Anderson and Chloe Kim also took home the top prize on the women’s side. Red Gerard, who seemed every bit a 17-year-old boy as he claimed gold in slopestyle, rounded out the American domination. Gerard’s performance was impressive but a little jarring: he’s a decade younger than me, and for the first time, it seemed like the vast majority of the Olympians are younger than I am. I guess I’m doomed to never be an Olympian, unless I up and move to some Pacific island nation that wants to send a mediocre cross-country skier to some future Games.
The skiing hero of the games was Johannes Klaebo, Norway’s 21-year-old wunderkind who will be its next in a long line of Olympic superstars. (How awesome is a country where cross-country skiers become superstars?) Klaebo won golds in the classic and team sprints, and put on perhaps his most stunning performance in the 4×10 relay, one of the more storied events in cross-country skiing. He played with his food for a spell as he skied the anchor leg, and let an Olympic Athlete from Russia hang around, gliding along effortlessly while the Russian poured out all his effort to keep up. With a few kilometers to go, though, he left his trailer in a powdery dust, flying up a hill that had been named after him before he ever even skied it. He pulled into the viewing area with enough time to grab a Norwegian flag on his way by the stands and cruise across the line towing it behind him. It was a statement of national pride in a nation that usually eschews such pageantry: Norway restored order in the 4×10 after a three-Olympics drought, cleaned up the medals in cross-country, and set a new record for total medals in a single winter games. In Pyeongchang, a nation about the size of Minnesota put the rest of the world to shame.
If Klaebo brought the youthful power, the grace came in the form of German Aliona Savchenko, who, as a figure skater in her fifth Olympics, defied the march of time to deliver perfection. I’m usually a halfhearted skating follower, but every now and then, a performance is so obviously a gold medal that I can forget the vagaries of the judging system and Johnny Weir’s efforts to look like a Hunger Games character and admire sheer artistry. This time around, it was Savchenko and her pairs partner, Bruno Massot, who made me drop everything and watch in awe, and the commentators had the good sense to go quiet when it became clear just what we were watching some ways into their performance. In a year in which the Olympics allowed songs with lyrics and had us drowning in Coldplay and “Hallelujah,” Savchenko and Massot’s performance to La terre vue du ciel, a mesmerizing classical score, fit perfectly with the moment. It was the best-judged pairs free skate in history, and erased a deficit from the short program to earn the pair of immigrant Germans a gold. Savchenko fell to the ice, heaving and spent, after her performance; as the scores of their rivals rolled in she seemed nonplussed, but the emotion finally poured forth when she learned she’d finally claimed a prize that long eluded her. It was as golden a moment as you’ll ever see.
While the U.S. women’s hockey team took home the hardware, the men weren’t much to write home about, with a loss to lowly Slovenia in group play and an ultimate defeat at the hands of the Czechs. I liked the idea of going back to amateurs, but let’s stick with the kids, please: washed-up ex-stars do nothing for me. It’s back to the drawing board for the American men in Olympic hockey, who need to do a lot more to garner the attention the women earned in Pyeongchang.
And so the curtain comes down on another year of Olympic glory, from Klaebo’s power on skis to Savchenko’s sublime skating to a bunch of Duluth guys who can throw rocks and sweep ice better than anyone on earth. And sometimes glory comes in several forms for one person, as in the case of Ester Ledecká, the Czech athlete who seemed genuinely surprised when she won a gold in the downhill Super-G: she is, after all, a snowboarder who also won gold in that sport’s parallel giant slalom. We have an entertaining world, though the closing ceremony could probably survive without a painful rendition of John Lennon’s Imagine, as we heard back when we started two weeks ago. Cross-cultural sharing at its finest, I suppose. Thanks for the fun, PyeongChang, and let’s do it again in another four years in Beijing.