Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Winter Olympics: Why the Hate?

As a lifelong winter sports enthusiast, I've usually believed that the Winter Olympics are simply the equivalent to the Summer Games. But nearly every time the February version rolls around, you see a lot of bashing from the media, as well as (and I am typically very suprised about this) runners. I don't get it.

The two events are even somewhat complimentary. The Summer Games have gymnastics and the Winter Olympics have figure skating. To the American media, these are the marquee events. It's always interesting to see the stands only half full when the Games are overseas, however. Swimming and speed skating seem to be equivalent. Both are obscure, except for Olympic years, and somewhat technical events that take a lot of dedication. Americans tend to do well in both events, and the athletes look positively studly--Olympian--in their respective attire. Diving and freestyle jumping are also similar. And at the bottom of the barrel (respect-wise) you have rhythmic gymnastics and ice dancing to offset each other. Equestrian? Bobsled.

One big difference is that skiing, the other big-time Winter Olympic showcase sport, does not capture the attention equivalent to track and field. And I think that might be root to the distrust and resentment of runners. You would think that alpine skiing, enjoyed by millions, would fill that void. But it rarely gets much notice. And in this Olympics about the only thing you hear is Bode hate, in reference to the iconoclastic and outspoken skier from New England. Although many Americans ski, they are recreationalists, and ski racing seems inaccessible unless you live in or near a resort town.

Cross country skiing has tremendous crossover appeal for runners. The physiological demands are similar; in fact skiing requires more oxygen uptake and caloric burn. It's a non-impact sport that works your entire body. However, I remember reading about Joan Benoit Samuelson training during her peak years, and she disregarded cross country skiing as too slow and not as alpine. Slow? Top skiers can cover 4 minute miles for 50k, and on some courses reach 40-50 miles per hour on skis that are just 2 inches wide. The ironic thing was that she was injured at the time and could have benefited from a little training on skinny skis.

The critics do have some valid points, however. The Winter Games seem to have too many high-profile exhibition sports (figure skating, ice dancing, snowboard, and freestyle mogul competition). The figure skaters, their judges, and announcers are whiny, self-aggrandizing bunch. And the dude sports should be relegated to weekend exhibitions at your favorite mountain resort. Curling, while intriuging, seems a bit too much like bowling or shuffleboard on ice.

Another image problem appears to be the combination sports such as biathlon and nordic combined. To the learned afficianado these are actually very fascinating activities. The juxtaposition between having to cross country ski with heart rates at 170 to 180 for 10 or 20 km, and then stopping two to four times to shoot a little target from 50 meters away is pretty heady stuff--belive me, as one who has missed 10 for 10 in a 10k race, biathlon is much harder than shooting free throws. And to win the Olympics you have to hit about 90 to 95%, or you're off the podium, no matter how fast you ski. Likewise, nordic combined would be like having willowy high jumpers clear 7 feet plus, and then on the same afternoon, go out and run a 10,000 meters in 28 or 29 minutes. But the combined athletes typically get ignored or, worse, dissed by the general public.

And finally, I have to agree with Bode Miller. It's not just about the medals. Too bad some people don't get that. And too bad that the media and many of the public are hating Bode, the best all-around U.S. skier in a generation, and one of the best ever.


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