Monday, February 15, 2010

The Human Drama of Athletic Competition Including Its Final Act

The gold medal in the event, "Closing the Barn Door After the Horses Have Already Fled the Jurisdiction" in this edition of the Winter Olympics goes to the geniuses responsible for overseeing the luge event. It is equal parts tragic and moronic that it took the horrific death of a 21 y/o athlete to prompt a shortening of the course and the implementation of common-sense safety measures - uncovered steel beams adjacent to the course seemed like a good idea to someone with a drawing board one presumes - when repeated complaints from a number of the sport's top performers and less than mortal injuries inflicted upon others of them failed to do so.

Yesterday Margaret, Suzanne and I watched a bit of the Games - having stumbled across something called the Nordic Combined. I am a bit fuzzy on the details but I discerned from the announcers that the athletes who compete in this particular event are required to excel in two disciplines that - to my untrained eye and ear - appear to have little in common with one another. The first half of the event is ski jumping. The latter half is a 10K cross-country ski race. For those of you who never embraced the metric system, 10K = 6.2 miles. I had no idea such an event existed so I know not whether how they contested it in Vancouver is the same way in which it is always done but the cross-country part of the event was a race that consisted of 4 laps around a 2.5K course, complete with changes in elevation and turns and a whole lot of other fun stuff.

Apparently this is an event in which the United States has not historically excelled. In spite of our lack of prowess in it, we gave a pretty good accounting of ourselves in it yesterday. One of the American competitors won the Silver medal and a second finished just out of the medals in fourth place. The silver medalist Johnny Spillane missed first place by less than a second, getting caught and passed by a pseudo-Frenchman Jason Lamy Chappuis (born and raised in Missoula Montana but competes for France). Spillane was kinda, sorta the victim of a reverse Lezak (except no one on the American Nordic Combined team is as chatty as Alain Bernard) but was understandably ecstatic about his result; capturing only the third Olympic medal of any color that the United States has won in any Nordic event........ever.

As a kid I used to watch a lot of the Olympics on television. I recall still the image of Franz Klammer flying down the mountain at Innsbruck Austria in 1976 on his way to the gold medal in the downhill. And no one who was alive in 1980 will ever forget the Olympic ice hockey tournament when less than forty-eight hours after slaying the dragon that was the Soviet juggernaut, Herb Brooks and his college-aged team managed to avoid what would have been a letdown of Olympic proportions by beating the Finns and winning the gold medal. I do not watch them too much any more. I have not done so in a number of years. But for just a little while yesterday afternoon I sat in my den with my wife and daughter looking westward to Vancouver and backward to my youth. All in all it was not a bad way to spend a piece of one's Sunday afternoon.

And I smiled when I thought of the ski jumping part of the Nordic Combined, which coverage I missed altogether. Ski jumping always makes me think of Saturday afternoons spent as a kid watching Wide World of Sports on ABC, including of course the poor SOB from Yugoslavia who spent three decades as the poster boy for the agony of defeat. Watching the Olympics yesterday made me think not only of him but of my older brother Kelly. Years ago, sitting in our living room listening to Jim McKay's introduction of a particular week's installment of Wide World of Sports, I asked whether the ski jumper whose defeat was relived over and over on a weekly basis worldwide had been badly injured in the crash. In a classic, deadpan delivery, Kelly responded, "Nah. He is used to it. He does it every week."

We were able to chuckle about it then as we can now because the ski jumper who every Saturday for thirty years failed to successfully complete his journey down the ramp survived his historical failure without any long-term consequences (although presumably he abandoned his career in ski jumping for something less dangerous such as minesweeper). Mom always said, "It is funny until somebody loses an eye." It is even less so when someone loses his life.

-AK

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