Thursday, February 22, 2018

Ice gold

Given that the ancient Greeks exercised in the nude, they probably didn't envision a Winter Olympics.

I'm glad the games happened anyway.

I've already posted about how much I love the Winter Olympics, going all the way back to the 1980 games of Lake Placid and absolutely taking hold of me in Calgary, 1988. I realize this love of the Winter Games is something of a minority opinion in America, so I thought I would meditate on just what it is about them that captivates me.

-They're different. Winter events are such a breath of fresh air. Sure, I like baseball and football all right, but the Winter Olympics let me spend two weeks watching sports that are so alien to the American mind. For example, biathlon.

Ski. Then shoot a rifle. Then ski even more.

Ski jumping.

Strap on skis. Go to the top of a ramp. And jump.

Even better is the Nordic Combined. Skiing and jumping together.

Like I said, these aren't sports that really have a following in mainstream America. No big deal for me. I actually like seeing other nations get their share of the limelight and watch their athletes dazzle with the speed and strength it takes to excel in these sports. After watching two minutes of cross-country skiing, my chest vicariously hurts from the cardio burn. The Norwegians, on the other hand, make it look easy.

-There's a dangerous aspect to these games. Many of the events are all about speed. There's ice. There's snow. Things can go really wrong, really fast. Observe:

In the Summer Olympics, you're running on a track or tumbling on a mat. In the Winter Games, you're speed skating and hoping you don't wreck and get sliced by your competitor's blades. You're not just hoping for a gold medal. You're hoping you'll survive.

-Stories. Ultimately, I believe the stories of the individual athletes and the drama of the narrative of competition that draw me in as a writer. I'm certain the Summer Games have their share of characters and conflict as well, but with so many summer events, it's so easy for them to get lost in the spectacle, not to mention the chopped up coverage we usually get in America in recent years. The venerable Jim McKay said it best all those decades ago: "The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat."

What are my favorite Winter Olympic stories? Glad you asked. Here they are and they're loaded with real human drama:

-The figure skating of 1988. Dueling Carmens, Katarina Witt and Debi Thomas, and the Battle of the Brians.

-Eddie "the Eagle" Edwards and the Jamaican bobsled team, again 1988. True tales of undaunted spirits.

-Speed skater Dan Jansen. He wipes out at the 1988 games on the night of his sister's death and later fell again in his second race. He failed to medal in 1992. Finally in 1994, he wins gold. I think everyone can use a great story of perseverance.

-Nancy and Tonya, 1994. One of the greatest Shakespearean epics in all of sports. 'Nuff said.

-Bjorn Daelhie of Norway won gold in cross-country skiing in Nagano, 1998, setting a record as the most decorated Winter Olympian in history. He waited at the finish line for the last skier, Philip Boit of Kenya. "He deserves to be encouraged. It was hard for him but he never gave up," said Daehlie

Too soon to say what my favorites from PyeongChang will be. Right now, two of them come from bobsled.

-Seeing the Nigerian bobsled team raised my spirits. It doesn't matter if your home doesn't have snow. What matters is your drive to achieve.

-When the Canadian two-man bobsled team crossed the finish line, they tied the German team for first place. Upon seeing this, the German team erupted into cheers and ran to embrace the Canadians. That's what the Olympics are all about Charlie Brown.

Alpine skier Anna Veith has quite the story. The Austrian won the gold in Sochi and then suffered a terrible injury. PyeongChang was to be her comeback and after a great run, it certainly looked like no other skier could touch her. Then a relative unknown named Ester Ledecka showed up. The Czech skier, a snowboarder really who borrowed skis for the event, shaved one one hundredth of a second off Veith's time. I'm really trying to get my head around that experience. You're separated from being the best in the world by one one hundredth of a second. I can't even conceptualize how long that is.
Though suddenly knocked to silver, Veith showed grace and gratitude in the moment.

Turns out I'm not the only writer enamored with the Winter Games. The Guardian published this list of writers and their literary works that feature Winter Olympic sports. Here are a few of my favorite selections:

-It's a smidge of a stretch, but T.S. Eliot mentioned the bobsled in his triumphant poem, The Waste Land: "... he took me out on a sled, / And I was frightened. He said, Marie,/ Marie, hold on tight. And down we/ went"

-Ian Fleming's On Her Majesty's Secret Service has James Bond pursuing Blofield down a skeleton track. The article also asserts the presence of slalom and biathlon. What I can say is that the ski chases in the Bond films are among the most thrilling sequences of the franchise.

-Edith Warton's Ethan Frome climaxes in what Ethan and Mattie plan as a double suicide as they hurtle down a hill on a luge.

For a hilarious send up of the Winter Olympics, look no further than Blades of Glory. Comedy writing seldom gets better.

On Sunday, the flame will go out in Olympic park. Though two weeks long, these games always seem to go by so fast. I will miss them. In a time of pain both personal and global, a time of division and honestly what feels like a downward spiral, the Olympics remind me that humans can occasionally be noble and compassionate.

This time around, I can think of no better location for them than the Korean Peninsula.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

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