It was Saturday night in the Parker apartments. The music was loud. The beer was flowing. And over on the couch, five seemingly normal male Colgate students watched either ice dancing or pairs figure skating (I don’t know which is which, nor do I care) on the television. During any other month over the last four years, I would have been free to berate the manhood of these dandies while passing them bottles of Zima. But this is February in an Olympic year, which makes it suddenly okay to make figure skating a part of your weekend.
I’m not sure why, but the Olympics have taken over the world. Every time I pick up a copy of The New York Times, I see skaters, skiers and snowboarders on the front page. Every time I visit Google, I see cartoon Olympic athletes cleverly shaped to replace the L in the search engine’s logo, a feature usually reserved for holidays like Valentine’s Day and Thanksgiving, celebrations that people understandably care about.
I can only scratch my head when it comes to why anyone cares about the twentieth Winter Olympiad. The Winter Olympics are more like a circus than a sporting event, a spectacle that celebrates the achievements of people with enough time and money on their hands to master obscure and impressive competitions, creating plenty of cash for the people running the show. The Olympics’ underlying principle of bringing together the world’s best athletes to compete against one another is terrific. I think the Summer Olympics are supersweet. That’s because the Summer games showcase the world’s most popular sports – soccer, basketball, track etc. – and fundamental elements of physical competition, like running, jumping and wrestling.
The Winter games, on the other hand, highlight sports that should be relegated to the X Games and Disney on Ice shows. With the exceptions of hockey and downhill skiing, I can’t think of a single Winter Olympic event that features a competition popular enough on a global level to warrant our adoration of its greats. No one grows up wanting to be a speed skater, a ski jumper or a bobsledder. So why do we show so much love to anyone who straps on their skis or laces up their skates in Torino (wherever that is)?
The answer, I think, is our great national zeal for anything that remotely relates to the stars and stripes. All NBC has to do is wave an American flag in our faces and we gather around the TV like it’s the Seinfeld finale. Except it’s not. It’s events like the biathlon, a skiing and shooting competition that Seinfeld himself has likened to swimming and strangling a guy.
Patriotism? Please. I felt about the same amount of national pride watching snowboarder Shaun “The Flying Tomato” White tearfully mouth the words to the Star Spangled Banner from atop the medal stand as I felt when I found out Dick Cheney had shot some guy. After the Flying Tomato won gold in a sport that no one outside of North America has ever heard of, he incoherently babbled about his love for our great nation and was whisked away for appearances on all kinds of talk shows and magazine covers. The line between national hero and ski bum, it seems, has become disturbingly blurred.
I know an Olympic hero pretty well. Sarah Hughes went to my high school. We had three classes together senior year. Hughes is the figure skater who improbably won gold in the 2002 games in Salt Lake City and was briefly vaulted into the national spotlight. Even though we went to school with her, us kids at Great Neck North High didn’t see much of Sarah growing up because she practiced like a fiend for fifteen years leading up to her shining moment in Salt Lake.
As a recent New York Times Magazine article about Sarah’s kid sister, Emily, pointed out, it takes not just time, but money (and lots of it) if you want to be an elite figure skater. The Hughes family spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on their daughters’ Olympic dreams. The necessary cash may explain why it’s mostly rich white folk who grow up to shine in figure skating and other winter sports.
This week, Shani Davis became the first African American to win an individual medal at the Winter games. Ever. That’s pretty staggering when you consider how many African Americans have medaled in the Summer Olympics. This is no coincidence. The winners at the Winter games are as white as the surfaces they compete on because the events are sports played mostly in northern countries, and usually by the upper class.
The Winter Olympics is not worth getting excited about. It’s not even worth changing the channel for. It’s a White boy talent show that puts me to sleep faster than a green chair in the library. I can’t wait until it’s over so that we as a nation can get back to important things, like American Idol.