The Strange Joys Of Winter

Bobby Curran
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Friday - February 24, 2006
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Every four years I find myself engaged in the same guilty pleasure: watching the Winter Olympics. These are sports I have little knowledge of or interest in at any other time, but for this two-week period I’m as helpless as the denizens of a trailer park with Jerry Springer repeats on the tube.

In the Summer Olympics, you can generally chart the evolution of an activity into a competitive sport. Marathons came from messengers racing to deliver news, javelin from throwing at hunting prey.

The Winter Olympics require a bit more imagination. The biathlon, combining cross-country skiing and riflery, probably stems from North Country folk, snockered on some unpronounceable fermented beverage chasing adulterous spouses across glaciers. OK, that’s an easy one.

Shortrack speed skating? Clearly the product of an over-populated small frozen pond coupled with an opportunity to torture your neighbor while wearing an outfit too tight for any other social interaction.

But the great sport of curling outdoes them all. It started when Yanni decided to challenge Yuri on a sidewalk sweep to the curb.

Uwe, grab a broom. You too, Elke. Now when Dad slides the rock - what the heck? Fun for the whole family. I can’t look away. It has the eerie fascination of a five-car pile-up, in slow motion.

Then we go to half-pipe snow-boarding, most famous for having its own language. While contestants speed down and up a bowl risking their necks on death-defying acrobatic moves, the commentators breathlessly chart their progress:

“Here comes the inverted backside whiznee. Oh, he torched it. Now comes the full frontside 720 whasnoodle into a double looshee. Oh my God, he’s a freak!”

Now take mogul skiing. It seems a novel way to permanently damage your knees. And after four years of gruelling practice and endless minor competitions, 90 seconds determine your fate. Two-sport athlete Jeremy Bloom, headed for the NFL combine next week, had to face a somber NBC interviewer after a slight wobble upon landing a ridiculously complicated aerial put him out of a medal: “Where did it all go wrong?” Bloom remained cheerful in the face of the ludicrous question, but the American obsession with medals seems to have taken a quantum leap forward.

When American snowboarder Lindsey Jacobellis lost a sure gold medal in the new snowboard-cross event by blowing an unnecessary trick on her last jump, she was inundated by questions and accusations from an angry American press. She’s been branded a showboater and worse, the critics unmindful that snowboarding’s popularity has much to do with its free-spirit ways and opportunity for self-expression.

And then there are the inevitable feel-good moments that accompany these events. Speedskater Joey Cheek’s victory in the 500 was larger by his announcement that he was donating his $25,000 prize money to Right to Play, a charity founded by his idol, former Olympic skating champion Johann Olav Koss, to help children in countries ravaged by war.

Or when downhill skier Lindsey Kildow crashed during a training run and then 48 hours later left her hospital bed and pushed her battered body into competition and a respectable run.

Or when Michelle Kwan graciously bowed out after aggravating a groin injury so that 17-year-old Emily Hughes could have her moment in the spotlight.

Great courage and silliness, grace under pressure and endless inanity, these are the Winter Olympics. Just now my wife enters the living room. Will I go shopping? Is she mad? With the women’s semifinal in skeleton just minutes away? The organic baby food will have to wait. She’s looking at me, holding her finger in the L shape against her forehead.

Ah, luger. She’s saying I’m a luger!

And to think, we have to wait four more years.

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