These might already be the strangest Winter Olympics and they haven’t actually started. Just think how crazy things will get when a bobsled controversy erupts.
The selection of Sochi started the strangeness as no one understood how a small resort area could land the Games, though everyone simply assumed it had to do with bribes, vodka and blackmail. In the weeks leading up to the Olympics stories emerged about how ill-prepared Sochi and Russia were for the influx of athletes, fans and media. And now that those fans, media and athletes have actually arrived, all of the worst-case scenarios appear to be coming true. Journalists have already written about hotels that don’t have running water, venues covered in tarps and roving bands of stray dogs that are looking to feed off humans.
And hanging over everything is the fear of terrorism. Various groups have vowed to strike and many families of athletes chose to stay home. With a sense of dread, I can already picture the breaking news banner on CNN or NBC announcing that something terrible has happened, followed by explanations about black widows and civil war. The best-case scenario is people get affected by various housing or transportation fiascoes. The worst case is almost too difficult to think about, though our imaginations can do just that. Still…people will watch. I’ll watch. I remain a sucker for the Olympics, a wide-eyed sucker who is fully aware of the horrific corruption in the IOC and the host countries and the drugs and the jingoism and everything else.
I enjoy the Winter Olympics just as much as the Summer games, even though the there are fewer events and many of the ones that do exist are borderline ludicrous (yes, curling, this means you, even though you can be strangely hypnotic at 3 a.m. and even though the U.S. roster is almost always populated with good folks from Minnesota, people I’d love to share a cup of cocoa with while cracking jokes about the winter).
I feel like Winter Olympians have it even tougher than their Summer counterparts. While track and field certainly gets more publicity than ever during the Olympics, it still has big events in off years, whether the World Championships or whatever event Usain Bolt decides to participate in. Same thing with swimming and gymnastics. But what about the fringe winter sports? How many people take time out of their day during an off year to watch luge or short-track speed skating? These athletes truly put their life’s work into an event that happens every four years. The speed skating is one of my favorite events and the skiing is almost always entertaining.
Olympic ice hockey feels a lot like Olympic basketball. The athletes say all the right things and they might even mean it when they say winning gold is the greatest achievement of their lives, but I only believe the Canadians. For NBA and NHL players the ultimate goal remains the championships during their real seasons.
Figure skating makes me nervous. Disaster and heartbreak are always a single bad step away and it’s devastating watching someone’s life’s goals and ambitions die while a James Bond sound track plays in the arena. One of my most vivid Olympic memories remains the 2002 women’s competition, which I watched from a New York City hostel on the Upper West Side, newly arrived in the city, a few weeks from fleeing. An older gentleman sat in the small lobby watching it with me and seemed to know a disturbing amount of every skater, while offering scathing critiques about their wardrobe choices.
American Sarah Hughes won gold that year and I think I was happy about that, though I may have been pulling for my countrywoman out of fear of my fellow viewer. Otherwise my Olympic patriotism comes and goes, depending on the event, depending on the athlete. If NBC pulls me in with an especially heartbreaking tale about a Norwegian star in the nordic combined I’ll cheer him and curse any American who stands in his way. In 2010 I wanted Canada to defeat the U.S. in hockey. Seemed like that country needed it more.
Mostly I just want to see some exciting finishes in sports I manage to forget about for four year stretches. And for the worst things about these Olympics to be comical and not tragic.