The 2014 Winter Olympics: February 22, 2014
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Reuters

The 2014 Winter Olympics: February 22, 2014

What the Olympics offer non-sports fans.

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The 2014 Winter Olympics

February 22, 2014

Season S-, Episode 17

They say that silver medalists have the hardest time after the Olympics, wondering what might have been. As not-really-a-sports-person, I spend most of my Olympic viewing pondering what goes on before or after the games, or behind the scenes. I want to know what these people are doing between these four-year intervals. Can you really train for the luge that whole time? And after your final Olympics, what are your options? Just how many bobsled coaches or Ice Capades consultants does the world need? I just picture all the athletes heading back to their hometowns to open up their own businesses like Gold Medal Realty or Bronze Catering or something. For the non-sports-inclined like myself, NBC tries to pull out fascinating facts or in-depth sidebars with the athletes, and some fare better than most.

I thought about that silver-medal saying during the Women’s Parallel Slalom this afternoon, as various pairs of snowboarders faced off in heat after heat. There was a lot of talk about how the red track was rougher than the blue track. The announcers actually spent time describing what a rut is. Guy, you do not need to explain what a rut in the snow is. I’m sports-illiterate, and I could figure that out; i.e., “to be in a rut.” Apparently choosing the right groove to follow is important, in snowboarding as in life.

The snowboarding women were impressive, from their tribal screams at the top of the mountain before the start to the way they hugged their heat partners at the end, even if they were from different countries. But the German pair of Anke Karstens and Amelie Kober had heightened momentum from the start, as Kober won her first heat by one-one-hundredth of a second.

In Kober’s next heat, she raced against her teammate Karstens, and unfortunately wiped out. Kober then had to race for the bronze, and got it. Karstens then faced Austrian Julia Dujmovits, plagued on that troublesome red track in her final heat, and lost by one-twelve-hundredths of a second. So, for the rest of her life, is Karstens going to replay that race over and over in her head? Was it that turn she took on flag 20? Or if she’d just had the red track first? Hopefully, there will be another Olympics in her future.

That’s what’s great about the Olympics: not everyone can effectively describe curling or deftly analyze figure skating. But I defy anyone to actually pass themselves off as a biathlon expert, yet even I felt like one at the end of the event. I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen a biathlon relay before, but fortunately I just watched the best one in all of history.

First off, the biathlon is crazy. You ski-ski-ski, then lie down with your gun and try to shoot a target the size of a grapefruit five times, then ski some more, then stand up and shoot some more. In the relay, you then tag out so your next guy can ski-shoot, ski-shoot. This year’s biathlon relay featured Norway’s Ole Einar Bjorndalen, currently the most decorated winter Olympian, with 13 medals (two these games). He has medaled in 62% of his Olympic events since 1994. As this was his last Olympics, he was trying to make it to 14 with this event.

I know it’s their job, but I really have to hand it to the Olympic color announcers with their fascinating biathlon facts. For example, did you know that Mikhail Prokhorov, owner of the NBA’s Nets, is also head of the Russian Biathlon Federation? I bet not. I wonder what the federation’s meetings are like? Also, Germany, Norway, and Russia are the only three countries to ever have won a gold medal in the biathlon.

But Bjorndalen’s story was the best, and made the biathalon the highlight of all eight hours of the day’s coverage. Apparently, he once received a pitch from a vacuum cleaner salesman that so impressed him, he invited the salesman to be his sports psychology coach. When Bjorndalen won four gold medals in Salt Lake City, he was working with the vacuum cleaner salesman. That salesman should write a book, if he hasn’t already.

And here Bjorndalen was still at the top of his game, making all his shots (10/10), keeping his team in the lead as he tagged off to Emil Hegle Svendsen. But then, in a startling turn of events, Svendsen proceeded to blow three shots in his second shooting round. (In the biathlon, you have to stay at the shooting range part until you complete five shots, so you need to fire off five accurate rounds as quickly as possible.) As he got completely flustered and kept blowing shots, several teams zoomed ahead of him. It was horrifying. He single-handedly knocked Norway out of medal contention.

Guess who it was down to then? That’s right, Germany and Russia. Who were neck and neck until Russia’s Anton Shipulin started pulling ahead. You may remember Shipulin from early on in the Olympics (although who can remember that far back?), as the skier who laid face-down in the snow for a disturbingly long time after coming in fourth in the sprint. A few weeks later, he brings home the gold, another heartwarming Olympics success story. The announcer noted, “It reminds you how long the Olympics are.” SO LONG. Also: “He won’t have to buy a drink in Russia for the rest of his life.” And his Gold Medal Realty office should be extremely popular.

These are the things I wonder about: What does Svendsen possibly say to Bjorndalen now? “Sorry I blew your last-ever Olympics event. How ‘bout I buy you a nice steak dinner?” What kind of anguish does that poor guy have to go through, and for how long? Still, these back stories, life-and-death moments, fates turning on a dime, are what draw even the non-sports folk to the Olympics. It’s like the best possible reality TV, with stakes that actually mean something.

If only the vacuum cleaner Bjorndalen’s salesman story could have been one of NBC’s achingly long sidebars. You might say that the network would never throw that much time at a non-U.S. athlete, but then why the really long story about the local Russian hockey team? I get why they would run the features about the upcoming Paralympic athlete, and Steven Holcomb, who is to NBC in bobsleds what Mikaela Shiffrin is in skiing.

Holcomb is the pilot for the four-man bobsled team now attempting to defend its gold medal from Vancouver. He developed a corneal vision problem, which would have ended his Olympic career; he got so depressed that he tried to commit suicide one night with a bottle of whiskey and 73 sleeping pills. Then the narrator says, “When he woke up the next day­…” When he woke up! Something to be said for that Olympic metabolism.

Holcomb unfortunately took a back seat tonight to the Canadian’s team’s horrifying crash that turned the sled on it side (“As long as they stay in the sled, they’ll be O.K.,” the announcer said doubtfully). The U.S. Team (who unfortunately named their sled Night Train, the drink of winos) now stands in fourth, so we’ll see how Holcomb’s story plays out tomorrow. But thanks to NBC’s coverage, he and his team should get a lot of support.

Men’s downhill slalom also had some horrifying crashes, including oh no, not American Tim Ligety! He had actually had a pretty good first run, although was unfortunately interviewed about it by the somnambulant Kristin Cooper, who concluded after his statement, “OK, well, good luck to you.” Unfortunately, in the next round, 11 skiers, including three in a row, couldn’t even finish the race. The announcer sounded like a dead ringer for Bob and/or Doug McKenzie: “Oh no, he’s out!” He then announced that “now, part of your strategy is just to get down to the bottom.”

Even after all those felled skiers, Austria’s Mario Matt attacked the hill and took the gold, and became the event’s oldest-ever gold medalist at 34. Cooper, trying for some semblance of wit, told him afterward, “This must make you feel pretty young, huh?” How old does she think 34 is? Mario wisely just shrugged it off, “I don’t feel like this, everyone keeps talking about this, I don’t know why.” Bob Costas noted that the U.S. Alpine team has five medals, second only to Austria’s nine, not missing any chance to mention Mikaela. What about a feature on the oldest Alpine winner?

I guess I get why NBC would be a bit nationalistic, but there are many events here where the U.S. is not a major player, so why should viewers still miss out on seeing the champions? This showed up most glaringly in the evening’s “figure-skating gala,” showcasing the medalists and contenders. Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski, who have been unrelentingly awesome throughout the games, barely said anything at this event, perhaps since the skaters are no longer being judged. Or maybe they’re just tired.

Chicago’s own Gracie Gold, who came in fourth, got to perform a lively routine to “All That Jazz,” at one point looking she looking like she was tap-dancing on ice skates. Silver medalist Yuna Kim skated beautifully to “Imagine,” and her tossing a peace sign over “live their life in peace” might have been her plea to stop the controversy over her losing the gold. And of course gold medalists Meryl Davos and Charlie White in ice dancing were showcased, but why no mention of the men’s winners or pairs skating (was it because the U.S. didn’t place higher than ninth in those events)? Instead, NBC offered a long promo for its special on the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan controversy of 20 years ago. Although Kerrigan has aged much better than Harding, as you might imagine.

Gold medalist Adelina Sotnikova skated a fierce routine with huge butterfly wings, and at the end the announcer asked Tara and Johnny the same question I’ve been wondering: “What do you do after you get a gold medal at 17? Do you retire?” Sotnikova will probably be great in the Ice Capades; hopefully Yuna Kim won’t have to wonder what might have been.