Monday, February 17, 2014

Olympic observations

Ever wonder why Americans are so good at some sports but not even competitive in others?
Consider speed skating. Both male and female, the Netherlands has been absolutely dominant in these Olympics. The Americans are nowhere in sight. Maybe that's because in the off-season, the Dutch boys and girls are wrestling windmills to stay in shape, while the Yanks zero in on endorsements and talk show appearances. Training in hand-carved wooden shoes versus training in Air Jordans. I think I know which regimen would result in more endurance and toughness.

Same with the Nordic sports, like the biathlon and cross-country skiing. The Scandinavians seem to rule. Forget about medals. The Americans are lucky if they can place one of their own in the Top 20 in such events. They typically lag far, far behind. Then again, if certain peoples maintain their fitness by playing pin the tail on the wild polar bear, then run/ski for their lives across the tundra -- while other people are content to put in a few hours on a treadmill in a gym somewhere -- I also think I know which ones will wind up having more stamina when it counts the most.

Throw in the ski jump. You won't see any Americans on the podium there either. Why? Like the above-mentioned Nordic sports -- there's no money to be made post-Olympics in the United States. Sponsors aren't exactly clamoring for long distance skiiers that can shoot straight or fly through the air after lifting off from a ski jump.

Add the bob-sled, luge, and skeleton. The "sliding sports". While an Olympic gold medal winner in any of the above might well be feted as a national hero in some countries, their fame would be fleeting indeed in America. Win a medal, stand on the podium listening to the Star Spangled Banner, then come back home to -- what? Maybe an appearance on a talk show here or there, but after a week or so they will quickly be forgotten. Time to get a real job.

Alpine skiing (the downhill, slalom, Super G, etc) is different. World-class Americans in such events, say, Bode Miller, can live for many years in the lap of luxury while being taken all over the world for various events -- as long as they remain semi-competive. Basically, they're ski bums, albeit very good ones. Americans seem to embrace successful athletes in some sports much more so than they do others. When these Olympics are done, likely Miller's last, chances are he'll find (cha-ching) many other opportunities awaiting him.

Yet even if an American spent the last 10 years of their life training like a maniac, and were to finally get a medal in, say, the 4x10 kilometer cross-country skiing event -- would anybody other than family and friends even know who they were when they arrived back home? Probably not, and certainly not for very long. Americans have come to prefer high-profile, though short-lived things in sports. Instant gratification, as it were. How else to explain their continued fascination with how many different ways a basketball player can dunk the ball? Or be glued to their TV sets watching Major League Baseball sluggers hit batting practice pitches into the stands during the Home Run Derby that precedes the All-Star Game? What's next? Tiger Woods topping the ratings while displaying 30 different techniques of sinking a 1 foot putt?

Olympic figure skating is different in its own right. Americans have come to embrace this and indeed are quite competitive. Yet medal or not, long after the Olympic torch has been extinguished, future opportunities such as the Ice Capades await them as well. Did I mention cha-ching?

But the gorilla in the room of the Winter Olympics is still hockey. That's probably why they save it for last. This is a huge deal between such countries as the US, Canada, Russia, Sweden, and a few others. Bragging rights are definitely at stake.

What yours truly found comical was the American reaction to their team beating the Russians in a preliminary game. OMG, quoth the breathless announcers, the US has reached the quarterfinals. This, after beating a hapless Slovenia team. That's akin to making the Elite 8 in NCAA college hoops. Still in the hunt, but a long ways to go, and the competition's going to keep getting better.

So what did NBC do after the almost meaningless game against the Russians? Featured Al Michaels -- he of the "do you believe in miracles" from way back in 1980, interviewing Vladislav Tretiak, the legendary goaltender of the Soviet Red Army team at the time. Some 34 years later, Al had the audacity to ask Tretiak how it felt to watch the Americans celebrate their improbable victory after that game. To his credit, Tretiak was diplomatic in his response, even giving the college American hockey players credit for how they performed in that particular contest. Yet few worldwide would doubt to this day that it was a miracle indeed. The Soviets were a vastly superior team, and had they played 10 more times, the Red Army squad would likely have won all of them by wide margins. But on that particular day, everything fell in place the right way for the Americans, the wrong way for the Soviets, and a colossal upset happened. Nevertheless, only in America would a TV network find a way to dredge up such a thing from so long ago, and think it would be remotely relevant to what's going on right now, not to mention attempting to rub salt in a very old wound.

But when it comes to a lot of things -- especially athletic endeavors -- the US has always been long on creating heroes, and maintaining them in such lofty status forever after.

Particularly if they happen to participate in the sports that get their attention.

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