Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

February 13, 2014

Winter Olympics mystify American sports fans

Tom Lindley
CNHI News Service

— I was slow to warm up to the Winter Games.

There was all that talk about Russia hosting the most expensive Olympics ever. The hotel rooms weren’t finished, and it appeared toilets were optional.

Packs of dogs were running loose until they were picked up and taken to who-knows-where. Visitors were warned about terrorist plots, and U.S. fans were discouraged from wearing red, white and blue.

Then there were incessant photos of Russian President Vladimir Putin  parading around without a shirt. Talk about a strange marketing image to get fans excited about Sochi, a resort nestled along the Black Sea.

Of course, getting excited about the Winter Games is difficult in this country, as it is, except maybe for people who live near ski resorts.

We don’t know much about some of these sports – what’s a halfpipe? – and even less about the star performers. This isn’t like watching the Super Bowl, where everyone knows the quarterbacks and opinions are plentiful.

The Winter Olympics sell pageantry and performance. They blend art with athleticism in a way that transcends sports. The opening ceremonies, thankfully, changed the narrative from political posturing to a celebration of achievement and expression.

The Olympics are a series of stories – joy from victory, agony from defeat.

I recall watching a skater take to the ice in advance of his 4 minute, 30 second routine. He was a picture of concentration. As he twisted and turned through a well-scripted routine, he failed to nail a spinning move then fell to the ice. It had to be crushing for him, and difficult for those in attendance to watch.

Moments later, he fell again, but then jumped up and proceeded on, offering a brief grin. If it wasn’t a victorious moment, it was a courageous one. He didn’t quit.

The terrain that provides the backdrop for the Games is breathtaking and mysterious. Images flashed across the world leave viewers wondering how it could be nearly 60 degrees in this coastal community, yet at the same time snowy and unpredictable in the Alpine areas where much of the competition is carried out.

The beauty of the surroundings, however, doesn’t mask the risks the athletes face as they chase Olympic dreams and medals.

The athletes, whether skiers or snowboarders, pull off death-defying feats. Their flipping and spinning create drama and excitement, but also a much higher degree of danger.

Besides bruises and broken bones, competitors live with the threat of head injuries. Concussions are common.

American snowboarder Trevor Jacob, 20, said he’s probably sustained 25 concussions during his years of competition. “I don’t remember a whole lot,” he said half-jokingly.

Neurologists have become part of any team’s medical staff.

The Winter Games, if nothing else, are inventive. There’s a place for tradition; hockey and downhill racing still draw attention and big crowds. But younger breeds of athletes are eager to experiment.

New this year is slopestyle, a freestyle skiing and snowboarding event. Athletes navigate a course of ramps and metal gates, and they're judged on style, creativity and precision. Of course, that can make it tough on novice spectators who aren’t sure what separates a great score from a good one.

No event draws more scrutiny and scorn than figure skating, which also happens to be one of the most watched. There’s something mesmerizing about the sport’s style and grace, the choreography and the music.

Then, when scores are announced, claims of international conspiracy surface. Watching U.S. skater Ashley Wagner’s reaction to a disappointingly low score this week only raised more questions about the fairness and impartiality of the sport’s judging.

It's just another aspect of the Games that leaves spectators amazed and amused. Maybe we tolerate it because the Olympics are here now, then suddenly gone for another four years.

We can still love watching the Winter Games even if we don’t always understand them.

Tom Lindley is a CNHI sports columnist. Reach him at tlindley@cnhi.com.

Tom Lindley is a CNHI sports columnist. Reach him at tlindley@cnhi.com.