Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Winter Games

So, the Sochi games are over.  After a bit of a rocky start, the Russian team came on very strong, and President Putin left with something resembling a smile on his face.  Apart from the pairs figure skating, which has belonged to the Russians, and before that the Soviets, almost uninterruptedly for decades, the two big wins were the women's figure skating gold (more on that later) and the medal sweep in the classic 50-km cross country race today, the equivalent of the Summer Olympics' marathon. I would say those two victories more than made up for the shortcomings of the Russian hockey team, as the closing ceremony more than made up for the opening ceremony's faults. Like the closing ceremony in London for 2012 showed for Britain, the Russians have more than enough cultural content to fill a closing ceremony and remind us that they still have a lot to offer the world.  I guess that's worth $9 billion, or whatever it cost .

Before I move on from Russia, though, I need to carp on some things:  The first point is that, though Russia is at the top of the dreaded medals table, that was in part due to the fact that it has been a home for expatriates who wish to transfer their nationality for sporting reasons--and, in one very important case, for reasons of love.  If Vic Wild, the double gold-medaled snowboarder, had performed for his home country, the US and Russia would have tied for gold medals (one would presume that he would have still won his thrilling semifinal comeback in the parallel race by .05 seconds or whatever if he was wearing the US uni). That's not a default, or a whine, but simply to point out that the nationalism aspect is a bit more fluid than those there, or here, or anywhere else may think. The second is that Russia has until 2018 to get its act together politically before it hosts a real event on a national basis--I saw it mentioned nowhere, but it will be hosting the 2018 World cup (of soccer, y'know).  This is not the kind of event that you can bottle up in  remote seaside and mountainside villages; it's something like 10 locales all over the country with millions of people traveling all over.  The police-state mentality won't work, and they better get their racial/gender tolerance thing together before then.  Then, there is the fact that during the Games, something close to a Soviet-style repression of demonstrators, followed by a popular coup d'etat, occurred not so far away in Ukraine; on the one hand it's positive for the participants that the violence didn't spill over; on the other, the repressive hand of the modern Kremlin was evident in both Sochi and indirectly through its sponsored leader in the Ukraine, the exiled ex-President Yanukovich.

Rant about Locales
The awarding of the 2018 World Cup to Russia, and the 2018 Winter Olympics to South Korea, and the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics to Brazil, and, for Pete's sake, the 2022 World Cup to Dubai, along with the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, all indicate a problem that has really not been well thought through.  These locales are ones that are not safe, are not ready for world sporting events, are poorly chosen.  I can just see North Korea holding the world hostage with an invented crisis in 2018, riots in Brazil for one or both events, people dying of the heat in Dubai, etc.  Not to mention the cost--Dubai can afford it, Russia can probably afford it, maybe Brazil can afford it (jury's still out), but it's an awful wasteful way to develop a country's infrastructure and brag to the rest of the world.  I prefer the World's Fair approach (Milano in 2015, story for another post), and I think the search for new, exciting places to have these world sporting events needs to cool it.  And in the case of Sochi, and I can imagine it will also be the case in Yeongchang, Korea, they need to cool it a lot (it was not nearly cold enough for the outdoor events at Sochi, and Korea's altitudes are too low for Alpine skiing).

Although I have a very firm view of where the Summer Olympics should be held (Athens), and I would argue the World Cup final should always be in Wembley Stadium in London (the soccer equivalent of Athens) after a global, neutral-site elimination tournament, I'm not such a know-it-all about the desired location of the Winter games.

Best idea that I can come up with is to follow the principle above and have the games return to their roots, but that means splitting them up. Basically the event has four main divisions:  the Alpine skiing, the Nordic events (biathlon, cross-country, ski jumping), the "classic" specialty sports (luge, bobsled, hockey, curling, and figure and long-track speed skating), and the X-games stuff (snowboard, freestyle, moguls, halfpipe, slopestyle, whatever, along with the odious short-track skating).   The interest level is not so broad for most nations; there is very little overlap of the nations which dominate in these four groups.  For example, the Russians won nothing in Alpine skiing, the Americans nothing in the Nordic, the Germans and the Dutch had their specialties (luge and speed skating), and some country--I guess--won curling.   I will give some credit to Norway, Austria, and Canada, which manage to show up for most of these categories, at least to some extent, and Italy's neighbor Slovenia, which garnered an outsized share of medals for its size and competed well in many categories. My proposal would be to hunker the Nordic events down in some neutral Nordic location (Finland?), the Alpine events in Innsbruck or St. Moritz, speed skating in Holland (of course), and the others can be spread around existing venues (whichever European nation has the best); the new-fangled stuff should be in the New World, somewhere out West. (I would keep those, because they expand the global interest:  it gives Australia, New Zealand, etc. a reason to show up--not to mention it being a huge sop for the US audience--without them where would the US get its share of medals?   Yes, I knew we did pretty well in Alpine skiing this year...)

Watching Them Abroad
This is the second time that I have watched an Olympic session outside the US, and, once again, I found the viewing attraction and entertainment increased.  The first was watching the 2000 Summer games held in Sydney while I was in Britain, and there were a lot of similarities in the experience.

I note first that the emphasis on the sports presented is very different, and the diversity of them is greater. Imagine 30-km relay cross-country shown live on the principal TV channel:  you might not think that a great idea (and maybe it isn't, from the perspective of the US ratings), but you should take it from me:  it was great to watch.  There is still emphasis on the performance of the TV channel's "home" competitors, but it isn't just possible-gold-or-don't-show (which is the NBC network criterion, whether they admit it or not).  The Italian performance in 2014, as with the UK's in 2000, had lots of just-missed-medal type performances.   As a matter of fact, the predominance of fourth-place finishes was heavily noted, with their ironic referrals to "medaglia di legno" ("wooden medal")--the Italians ended up with eight medals, of which two silver, and six bronze (no gold), and they made the best of it (though of course they wished for better).

One thing that seems to be the same in all the coverage--too much talking.  After an hour and a half of the climactic 50-km men's cross-country (solo) race, the commentators noted that 25 or so racers were still within range and that, for all their talking, no trends had yet become apparent, and they wondered what they had been talking about for 90 minutes.  At least there was an event to watch to accompany the incessant
talking, something superior to Bob Costas' face.  That event, plus music generated independently, would make a nice accompaniment to reading a magazine, cooking a meal, or playing with the kids.

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