Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Olympic impressions

I've been watching a lot of the Olympics with my daughter, which is fun, because I used to watch a lot of the Olympics with my mother. My girl's favorite sport so far is luge, which makes sense; with her language problems, she has trouble with games that involve planning and strategy, and the luge just looks a lot like holding on while gravity pulls your idle body to the bottom of an icy hill at terrifying speeds. Yes, I know, there's more to it than that, there's steering in imperceptible small ways with a twitch of a shoulder or leg, and if you really just hold on and do nothing you will ride down the hill on your face. But for a kid who has trouble understanding rules and the sort of unspoken communication that goes on among teammates, a sport in which you just lie there must look pretty appealing.

I enjoyed the snowboarding a lot. One writer described it as the last sport that hasn't been Olympi-cized, so that the competitors are still really just going at it for the joy of doing a thing you love well, and not to jockey for endorsement deals or ego room. That's why I liked it, I think; they just looked like a bunch of kids in baggy pants having a cool time. I loved reading that, in between turns, a lot of the American snowboarders grabbed their boards, hopped a lift, and went snowboarding for fun. Can't quite imagine a figure skater saying, "Hey, I have a couple of hours before I'm on and I saw a frozen lake down the way -- let's just go skating."

Figure skating was the big viewing event for my mom and me years ago, but I've had a hard time watching it in recent years because the emphasis on bigger and badder jumps and throws has resulted in bigger and badder crashes, and at some point it just breaks your heart to see all that effort done in by a bad blade angle. I'm loving the new scoring, though, especially as it seems to allow skaters to crash spectacularly and still do okay. What I like most about it, though, is its inscrutability. Not even the commentators -- not even the athletes -- seem to know what those numbers mean, and that eliminates a lot of unhelpful second-guessing. I mean, you see a 5.8, and it's easy to go, "No way! That was totally a 5.9! Unfair! Lynch the judge!" But you see a 79.7, and just like a ski jump or snowboard stunt or other judged event, you kind of go ... "Oh, okay. It looked good to me, but, whatever. Good show!" All the layers of difficulty and different point allocations lend the whole thing an obscurity that makes the sport more enjoyable, I think. Works for me, anyway.

The crash of that Chinese pairs skater, as tragic and painful as it was for her, must just have the execs at NBC Sports doing quadruple salchows. They were in a human interest crisis with Michelle Kwan's departure, and now they can just rerun footage of Zhang Dan flying through the air, crashing to the ice, bashing into a wall, and rising to skate again, again and again. If some sort of dramatic injury like this hadn't happened, NBC would have had to send Dick Button down with a lead pipe to make it happen. Oh, the human drama! It was pretty impressive. I don't know if Chinese athletes do endorsement deals, but somebody needs to put that girl's face on a cereal box, or maybe a bottle of pain reliever.

The medal ceremony for that pairs competition was amazing -- I've never seen so many glum faces on the winner's platforms. People, you won! Look alive! Both Chinese couples had skated through significant injuries and pain, so I guess I can give them a pass for looking so desperately unhappy, but the gold-medal-winning Russians had no excuse. The woman looked so ticked off, and gave such an ungracious answer when asked about the Chinese skater who was injured, that you just wanted to ... where's that lead pipe, now? Talk about endorsement deals: Sign this one up for Emerald Nuts -- Eschewing Mercy, Elete Russian Athlete Lobs Disdainful, Negative Utterances at Tortured Skater. If you can learn how to do all those fancy jumps and twists and landings, you can learn how to smile and to win with grace.

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