Sunday, February 19, 2006

the truth about the winter Olympics

This is my column from Sunday's rag. It's my first byline in about three months, so it might be a little rusty. It's also on the long side -- about 30 inches -- so you may want to grab a drink or something before you begin taking a gander.

There has been much hand-wringing this week over the plummeting interest in the Winter Olympics. From athletes complaining about nonexistent crowds to network executives lamenting the 36 percent ratings decline since Salt Lake City four years earlier, all essentially express the same frustration. Newfound irrelevance.

But it's no wonder Americans have ignored Turin. The Olympics have become a cesspool of corruption, arrogance and marketing shtick that dilutes the actual meaning of the Games.

Let's stop pretending it's our patriotic duty to revel in the Olympics and acknowledge them for what they are. At the end of his provocative "Real Sports" Show, host Bryant Gumble said: "Face it, these Olympics are little more than a marketing plan to fill space and sell time during the dreary days of Feburary."

Sounds about right.

The loudest voice telling us how excited we should feel about these Games comes from NBC, which not coincidentally is the network that paid $1.5 billion for the right to tell us exactly how excited we should feel.

And NBC has done that with all the subtlety of clobbering viewers with a two-by-four. Instead of broadcasting actual events, competition becomes a sideshow for contrived features. Cue the violins. If an athlete ever endured the crisis of a toothache, you can be sure Katie Couric will reverentially gush with triumph-over-adversity bluster.

Four years from now, Johnny Weir's "They changed the bus schedule whine" will make for a fantastic story for Matt Lauer.

The androgynous figure skater blamed a renegade bus schedule and his subsequent late arrival at his venue for an error-riddled performance Wednesday that cost him a silver medal. "I didn't feel my inner peace tonight," he said. "My biorhythm was off. I was black inside."

This is another thing about these Olympics. The athletes are more unlikable than ever.

Once, part of the appeal of Olympic stars was they didn't behave like the pompous, spoiled millionaires who populate mainstream sports. They were men and women who trained in obscurity for years, persevering toward an dream. They possessed that contagious, underdog spirit. Ordinary people could relate.

Now we get drug cheats on ever corner. We get Bode Miller's daily screeds regarding how little he cares about his performance. We get Weir complaining that a bus schedule turned his inner aura black. We get snowboarder Lindsey Jacobellis.

The three-time X Games champion should have coasted to an easy gold medal in Friday's snowboard cross. Instead of nursing her sizable lead, she hot-dogged toward the end, performing an unnecessary jump. She fell. She lost.

Such a stupid stunt not only shows how ESPN's boo-yah culture has infected the sporting landscape, it instantly became a symbol of American arrogance in Turin.

All this arrives on top of the scandal-addled Winter Games in Salt Lake City, which showed Olympic ideals are as much about lining the pockets of politicians and IOC officials as they are international sporting competition.

Even if you overlook the absurdity of whipping fans into a frenzy once every 48 months over a collection of obscure sports they otherwise show zero interest in, it's easy to see why few are excited about Turin.

Fans are fed up. Sappy NBC drivel. Drug cheats. Selfish athletes. Crooked Olympic officials. Shamless sponsors hawking products. You don't need to be a cynical sports writer to feel disgusted.

But just when the urge to dismiss the Olympics forever reaches its flashpoint... along comes Joey Cheek.

The American speedskater won a gold medal Tuesday. He started his ensuing press conference by saying: "I've trained my whole life for this, but I am skating around in a skintight suit. It's a little ridiculous. I can take the time to sit up here and gush or I can do something worthwhile."

He chose the latter. Cheek announced he would donate his $25,000 winnings to a charity called "Right To Play." The organization provides athletic opportunities to youngsters in the war-torn Darfur region. He encouraged his sponsors to do the same.

On Saturday, he won a silver medal that will allow him to donate $15,000 more to the charity.

Then along comes Michelle Roark, a Denver resident who tells an underdog story so improbable, even Katie Couric couldn't have conceived such a remarkable, wrenching tale.

Roark's mother kicked her out of the house at a young age. For her 17th birthday, the homeless girl only wanted food. She lived as a squatter on a tent near Winter Park for six months, scaring bears away by banging on a pot. She worked part-time jobs at a bakery, movie theater and T-shirt shop, earning just enough to scrape by in various mountain towns. She endured six knee surgeries. But she continued skiing.

So there she was, thrashing through moguls in Turin.

Then along come two cross-country skiers who may have finished dead last, but definitely not least. Costa Rica's Arturo Kinch and Thailand's Prawat Nagvajara were one-man delegations in Turin. It took them years to convince their respective governments they were not kidding -- they really wanted to compete in the Olympics.

Kinch, a customer-service agent for United Airlines, sold stock options in the company to pay for his Turin trip. Four years ago, Olympic officials removed Nagvajara from the course because he moved too slow. They wanted to wrap up the event. When he crossed the finish line in Turin this week, he shouted: "I did it! I did it!"

These are people who embody true Olympic spirit. They remind us what the Games are really about. Behind layers of slime and the drape of NBC's sugar-coated coverage, they're just a lot harder to find.

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At 3:00 PM, Blogger Todd Cohen said...

Winter Olympics? Did they even start yet?

Nice column, cat.

At 5:55 PM, Blogger jeffro said...

todd pretty much sums it up...

At 7:43 AM, Blogger Dan said...

NBC's coverage is pretty awful, despite the presence of Bob Costas, who is still excellent. However, I find sports television coverage to be awful in general. I can't sit through more than five minutes of SportsCenter without getting a headache. And don't even get me started on Pardon The Interuption.

At 11:47 AM, Blogger Pete said...


You still watch SportsCenter? It became too unbearable. I'd say I've seen it once in the last two years.

At 11:05 PM, Blogger malibubrian said...

Am I the only one who's still a sucker for the sappy featurettes by Katie Couric? Come on, she gives us the proper backstory and perspective we need to put the human face on team ski jumping and the like.


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