Reflections on the demise of the Olympics

I was surprised yesterday morning watching SportsCenter that the opening ceremonies for the Winter Olympics are today (Feb. 12th).

Shit. I didn’t even know where the games were being played.

(Vancouver … or better said … “somewhere in Canada”)

So. I went to the website to check it out. A little confusing (because the Olympics claim to be all about “with glowing hearts” … huh? … and Canada is all about “together in 2010” … which makes me think they were apart in all the other years … anyway). But. They do have some very cool merchandise so you can act like you went there. And maybe even supported it. Once again. anyway.

So. What’s happened to the Olympics? (big sigh here)

I remember when the Olympics was truly “appointment viewing.” And it was a source of country pride. Did we win more medals then the evil Soviets or luging Germans (who the heck decides to become a luge expert?) or those Swiss knife-wielding skiers.

I believe the Olympic Games have lost their allure. Before I say why i believe it is so I wanted to reminisce a little. Reminisce about why I loved the Winter Olympics (am going to stick with Winter reasons and not Summer) and maybe we can ponder why we don’t have these gems anymore. (and I will offer a reason why at the end):

Awesome reason number 1. Eddie the Eagle. Crazy Eddie.

Eddie The Eagle

He soared like a dodo, but Britain’s Michael “Eddie The Eagle” Edwards endeared himself to fans at the Calgary ski jumping competition (really, who remembers that Matti Nykänen won three golds? Plus, he was later thrown in jail for stabbing a man in the back). The plasterer with the oversized glasses was comically inept: Edwards, describing his first forays into ski jumping, said: “When I looked from the top of the jump, I was so frightened that my bum shriveled into a prune.” He finished dead last, but not dead.

The non awesome? Because of Eddie the Eagle, I assume the Olympics went into the “law suit avoidal muscle spasms” they changed the rules and countries cannot simply enter people because they want to enter someone in an event. They actually have to qualify. What bullshit. If Sudan wants to enter a dance figure skating team, let ‘em. I don’t care. It’s the Olympics.

All those Swiss/Austrian/Whatever skiers.

Ah. The Olympic skiers. Franz Klammer was a hero in Austria. A winner of 8 of 9 World Cup downhill races in 1975. The guy was fast. Really fast. And fearless.

Alberto Tomba Oh. And then there was Italy’s Alberto “La Bomba” Tomba, big talker (“I am the new messiah of skiing,” he once said), and an ever bigger playboy. The 1988 Games were one big party. He toyed with the competition. Right before going out of the giant slalom start gate, he turned to all the other nervous skiers and said “O.K., boys, keep calm. And good luck to all.” He blew the field away, then won the slalom two days later. He spent the rest of the Games sipping champagne, posing for the camera, and trying to woo Katarina Witt, the East Germany beauty who won the figure skating gold that year.

Next. The Austrian guy Hermann Maier. “He could be dead, right?” During the downhill competition, off a steep turn, he flew 30 feet into the air before landing on his helmet and crashing through two fences. He settled on a patch of snow far off the run. After lying still for a few minutes, Maier walked away from the cartoonish crash with just a bruised left shoulder and sprained right knee. Three days later, with the memory of the downhill disaster dogging his concentration, Maier won the Super-G. “Maybe he really is an alien, I don’t know,” his girlfriend, Petra Wechselberger, remarked. Three days after that, he took Giant Slalom gold. Awesome stuff.

And in my memory it began with the name. One man’s name. Debonair skiing sensation Jean-Claude Killy. He owned the 1968 Games, held in his native France and owned downhill skiing for years.

Jean-Claude Killy

Hey. I am all for Americans stepping up to the competition but please bring back these mysterious, blond haired, glacier eyed, carefree playboy Austrians who bring a little flair and charisma and less American bombast to the sport. Plus. Their crashes are pretty spectacular.

Ice skating.

All that ice skating judging crap. C’mon. Russian judges scoring Americans like they didn’t even watch. French judges being coerced. While having men in tight outfits doing something called a “camel” doesn’t float my boat, there is something tense about a 3 minute program conducted on a very very thin blade of metal that makes it worthwhile as long as you know the judging is crap and you can yell at the TV (and when would I EVER envision yelling at a television over ice skating? Answer: never). There is Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding. Sonja Henie. Bad music. Silly costumes. What makes this awesome is most of us have no clue how they are judged, the judges have no clue how to judge and the skaters are trying to impress all of us. The sheer randomness of this event makes it all worthwhile.

Ice Hockey.

We all know the story. Set against the backdrop of the Cold War, the United States took on the heavily favored Soviet Union team in men’s ice hockey in 1980. I cannot remember any other ice hockey Olympic game I have watched since. Who cares. Olympics were made for a once in a lifetime Olympics story like this.

Bobsled and Luge.

WTF. Even better, is “Luge” isn’t even recognized as a word in my spell check. So. Of course there is the Jamaican bobsled team story (the bad movie Cool Runnings). More importantly is when else do you ever watch someone (or two) sit flat on their back or on their stomach and go 100+ miles per hour on a flexible flyer on sheer ice. And actually watch. This is like watching NASCAR on ice just waiting for the crash. All the good teams are from countries you think have the coolest flags but have no clue where they are. And, once again, how does one decide that they are going to become the best “bobsledder” in the world? We would never know if it wasn’t for the Olympics.

So. With all these great things why don’t we care about the Olympics anymore? (Beyond the fact they have eliminated any possibility of another Eddie the Eagle type participant):

In the battle for relevance I am not sure the right side is winning.

Will I ever care for or watch the Biathlon? Nope. I am not sure I will ever care there is someone out there that can ski a zillion miles and still stop and shoot the eye out of a squirrel unless World War 3 rolls around (then I am gonna wish our guys are better). But who cares? It’s one of those nifty random things that make the Olympics special. I would rather someone try and make this skiing/shooting thing cool rather than bring in some new cool TV viewing activity and relegate the skiing/shooting thing to some obscure corner of Canada. I believe in our attempt to keep the Olympics “up-to-date” and relevant to a “new viewing audience” we have started including some very non-Olympic like activities. Just make the old school stuff cool and we get back to Olympics basics. Let’s teach the “new viewing audience” what was cool about what we already had.

The pros have diminished the randomness.

I won’t argue the whole higher moral value of amateurs competing. Rather, let me argue that bringing in obvious pros has diminished the event in another way (although the first one is valid also).

Similar to college basketball to pro basketball there is always a little randomness, humanness, maturity struggle, whatever that made the Olympics special. Sure. There were always “veterans” and they performed with that veteran experience but even they on occasion got knocked around by some young upstart who didn’t know any better who got caught up in the moment. Allowing professional athletes is killing the Olympics. Do I know where to draw the line? Nope. Allowing professional skiers in Olympics? Yeah. I am ok with that. Professional basketball players? Nope. Professional tennis players? Shit. I don’t think tennis should even be an Olympics sport. But. If it is? No pros (on the tour). Tennis club pros? Sure. That would be a blast. Anyway. I am rambling. I don’t know where the line is but we have crossed it.

Americans win too Often.

Okay. That’s a big statement. So let me qualify it. I am not sure if we win too often and too easily (meaning the types of games are skewed to United States capabilities) or if we simply don’t showcase the events where other countries kick the shit out of the American contestants. In the old days we saw year after year the US hopeful flameout on the ski slopes to one of those Nordic studs but we enjoyed the hope. Sure Americans started winning some but it was challenging the Viking-like athletes as an underdog. I miss countries coming to the Olympics under the guise of “sports fellowship” but really there to wear their country’s flag and shove it up someone’s ass when they won. I like the Russian judge never scoring the US team over 4 in a 10 scale even if they skated on their heads the entire routine. In the end I keep coming back to Americans winning too often. Make it hard for us. We will figure out a way to win. And when Americans are focused and grumpy and the underdog, people globally pay more attention also.


Now that I actually know the Olympics are here I may watch. I am hoping that I was in a minority with regard to Olympics awareness (or lack thereof). A great event. It shouldn’t be missed.

Written by Bruce