OPINION: Winter Olympics: The Quadrennial Oddity

By Alexander Kenny, columnist

Every four years, Americans tune to NBC to watch beautiful figure skaters, high-tech sled races, Shaun White, and dangerously fast downhill skiing, yet nobody knows what a triple Salchow actually is.

We like the drama. We like the crying in baseball. We like the stories. Athletes will crash hard on the rink. They will rise to their feet like brave newborn giraffes and finish the race, wobbly, stoic and concussed. We will forget their stories by March. The athletes too specialized, the events more alien to us than Quidditch. Americans vigorously care about these sports for three weeks every four years, and that seems about right.

The Olympics are a cold war battle between Democracy and Communism that we call “The Miracle on Ice” and the Russians call “The Big Cheating Cheaters at Lake Placid.” The Olympics are an insane coach yelling “you can do it” at tiny Kerri Strug, who lands the vault on torn ankle ligaments.

The Olympics are also Tonya Harding hiring a thug to bash Nancy Kerrigan’s knee. The Olympics are also track stars Carl Lewis and Ben Johnson still arguing over the 1988 gold medal when both athletes have since tested positive for steroids. Competition brings out the best and worst in all of us.

The Winter Olympics events seem unnatural. Running and swimming require no equipment. Skiing is expensive, remote, and dangerous. Snowboarding is slightly cooler (because standing sideways exudes nonchalance), but I have to produce a failed drug test to buy a board. If there was a luge in this one-bobsled town, the waiting line would wind across Fairfax– but we wouldn’t train to circumvent friction. The moguls, brought to you by OrthopedicSurgeons.org, are as practical as skiing through a minefield. The skeleton competitor sits atop a teaspoon, then scoots down Mount Crumpet at 80 mph.

And then there’s curling, the low-hanging fruit of Olympic comedy. We watch ice-shuffleboard for the mockery. Curlers aren’t shredded athletes honing skills since the age of four. Curlers look like us with middle-age love handles. Curlers are Moms and Dads who work at the library and the DMV. Curlers feverishly push little brooms to heat the ice, passionately yelling to each other. While most athletes crank ‘Eye of the Tiger’ and ‘Jock Jams,’ curlers spend their weekend of training listening to The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

Figure skating, hockey and speed skating are the heavy hitters in the Winter Olympics, due to beauty, anti-beauty, and wonderfully tight uniforms. The underrated biathlon should be a bigger deal to Americans because it combines racing and guns. Skiing and shooting mimics catching supper for your family, provided you live north of 60° latitude and the year is 1860. Competitors ski kilometers, gasp for breath and pause at a shooting range. It’s like doing P90X, playing Jenga, then starting a new P90X tape. The biathlon couldn’t be more American if the targets were apple pies and Baywatch posters.

We will watch them all once every four years and only once every four years. World Cups in every event are broadcast annually on ESPN, but ratings are dwarfed by Scripps National Spelling Bee and Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest. Maybe we care less because Americans don’t annihilate the Winter Olympics like we do the Summer Olympics. Maybe being cold annoys us more than being sweaty. Maybe it’s because we just saw the Super Bowl and we’re emotionally drained.

I watch these amazing athletes who are physically fit to an unhealthy degree. I watch them pull amazing stunts I’ll never be able to do. I dry-clean my skin-tight speed suit, train hard, eat my Wheaties, and wait for the day air-hockey becomes an Olympic sport.

Graphic by Mary Jane DeCarlo