Not to fly in the face of overwhelming public sentiment, but I’ve always felt the ratings-behemoth that is figure skating is a lower-tier Olympic sport. (Now hear me out…) It’s just that the Olympic ideal is always more purely expressed by objective measurement. (Of course, that itself is a subjective statement, but continue to hear me out…) The concept of worldwide games where the greatest athletes compete to determine who is the absolute best at a particular skill is best determined by empirical evidence. Add subjective evaluation from judges based on aesthetic concerns and it introduces not only the muddying element of personal judgement, but also opens the door to the decidedly anti-Olympic politics and partisanship that remains the event’s least-laudable trait. Going into the third night of competition, three of the four spotlighted events rely, to greater or lesser degree, on that pesky subjectivity, but only one truly rankles the Olympics curmudgeon in me.
Much has been made of the new team figure skating event (the first new figure skating event introduced since ice dancing in 1976), and there’s no question that it’s a no-brainer triumph—for NBC, anyway. Figure skating is the Winter Olympics’ moneymaker, and adding another, overarching competition to the schedule is guaranteed ratings gold. My main objection to this omnibus new event is that it takes the concept of objective individual competition even further into the realm of subjectivity by infusing already-theatrical figure skating with the heightened (read: “manufactured”) drama of reality TV. As part of the competition, nations’ teams are able to sub-in skaters midway through the contest—swerve! And they’re forced to decide whether its in their best interests to hold out their strongest individual event contenders from the team events so as not to tire them out—gamesmanship! Plus, the team concept means lots more juicy reaction shots, personal stories, and potential in-team tension—drama! It’s a brilliant move for the sport of figure skating, and for NBC—but I’m not sure it belongs in the Olympics. Looking at the gaudily costumed Russian team—who took gold in a runaway—leaping in the air and celebrating, I anticipate the team figure-skating musical Glee episode any time now. (Have they used “Livin’ On A Prayer” yet?)
As for the event itself, the coverage was spread out in ratings-tantalizing nuggets throughout the broadcast, but mostly at the very beginning and the very end, which NBC no doubt would hope to offset the fact that everyone knew ahead of time that the Americans weren’t going to win, as Russia went into the final night with an insurmountable lead (plus, you know—the Internet). When, at the very beginning of the broadcast, analyst Tracy Wilson announced “that the podium is pretty much secure,” I could practically hear NBC execs shouting “Get her off the air!”
And lest I be accused of being a skater-hater, the performances themselves were customarily virtuosic—the Russians really are excellent. Honestly, the level of athleticism and grace is so high that every time someone falls it’s legitimately jarring to see, like watching a bird suddenly forget how to fly in midair. Commentators Tom Hammond, Sandra Bezic, and Scott Hamilton didn’t say much during the actual performances, which was fine—the technical terms for the moves aren’t intrinsically interesting, and their silence in the face of the best performances was more in tune with my awe at what the skaters were able to do. (See, I like skating—I’m just not sold on its primacy as the number-one event.) Special shout out to 15-year-old Russian phenom Julia Lipnitskaia’s performance which, thanks to the insurmountable lead, was more of a valedictory exercise. But she was still remarkably assured and, when she scooped up a tossed “Russia” baseball cap off the ice and smilingly skated off with it on her head, refreshingly young and enthusiastic. Even NBC’s approach to the American team wasn’t egregiously partisan (a blessed restraint exhibited all night), with premiere skaters Gracie Gold, Charlie White, and Meryl Davis getting the obligatory puff pieces, but not the full “USA! USA!” treatment. Perhaps because, even to the real-time announcers, they had no chance of a gold going in to the final night.
For the non-skating sports, the men’s “normal hill” ski jumping was similarly deflated at the outset by the announcement that no Americans were in medal contention. (“Oh, shut the hell up!”—NBC execs.) Always an impressive spectacle, the parade of jumpers was also undercut by some particularly unenlightening commentary from former jumper Jeff Hastings, who offered about the same level of insight as I would. “He’s very forward—but is he too forward?” “He’s gonna be wishing he had that one to do over again.” Um, why? “How he managed to do that, it’s incredible!” Yeah, how? “He managed to create his own air out there.” Um, how? And so on. Also, non-ski-jump expert that I am, I was surprised that there’s a subjective “style” aspect to judging a sport (ski jumping) whose essence seems to be, “how far can you jump… on skis.” I mean, if you can jump farthest while screaming and wetting yourself, and pinwheeling your arms like Goofy, then I say that’s even more impressive—but these decisions aren’t up to me.
Next up was the other new addition to the winter games, the women’s snowboarding slopestyle event. And while this event, where snowboarders make a series of moves over a downhill, obstacle-laden course, also relies on a passel of unseen judges to determine whose tricks are the best, the sport does benefit from the seemingly innate exuberance of the competitors. Some curmudgeons (other than me) may grumble about the “X Games-ification” of the Winter Olympics, but, after American hopeful Ty Walker was talked up, her fall on the final jump was accompanied by a series of apologetic shrugs that were utterly endearing, a shared snowboarder trait that perhaps the stately Olympics could use. Unlike the lycra-clad superhero super-athletes of the skiing events, the parka-and-baggy-pants cheerfulness of these snowboarders is undoubtedly refreshing. Adorable, even. And while I know people have complained about over-explaining from the commentators, for some events (slopestyle, especially), I could have used a good deal more insight into the intricacies of the sport and the scoring. (In the slopestyle drinking game—which I’m sure exists—taking a drink whenever the announcers used the words “smooth” and “loose” would guarantee blackout.) And again, the American homerism was kept to a low roar, even though the eventually gold medal winner was smiley, unassuming Jamie Anderson.
The one pure Olympic competition (so says me, that’s who) was up next, with the men’s downhill skiing. This is more my speed, the (literally) razor’s edge timing and judgement of finely conditioned athletes trying to squeeze out a tenth of a second’s worth of speed while traveling over 70 miles an hour down a frozen mountain. Dang. Watching the skis vibrate furiously as the skiers cut vertiginously into each curve, teetering perilously on the very edge of limb-cracking disaster—that’s an Olympic event the curmudgeon can get behind.
Of course, the big story, at least according to NBC’s coverage, was the disappointing performance of American Bode Miller, who finished eighth, forcing NBC to both try to explain something they were presenting as inconceivable, and to drum up a substitute human interest story to keep people interested. Unfortunately, the experts didn’t shed much light on the reasons for Miller’s lackluster run (“In training, he was perfect, but today, he wasn’t”), but the bummed-out Miller himself, in the ever-cringeworthy post-race interview, offered some welcome insight about the quality of the light affecting his approach that a non-skier like me found helpful. (More than one commentator agreed, talking about the “flat light” of the overcast day which necessitated the spray-painted blue lines on various downhill courses to aid skiers and snowboarders in judging distance “so they know when to put down the landing gear.” Again, here the competition itself was allowed some room to breathe, which was just fine.
Overall, tonight’s was a relatively straightforward, nonsense-free night of Olympics coverage. Not flashy, but also refreshingly free of the bombastic nationalism I’ve come to dread. The Olympics are the place where people who have dedicated themselves to being the best—the best in the world—at a chosen discipline can test themselves against those who, unlike anyone else, can understand what that means. There’s no need for extraneous trappings beyond that.
- US figure skating favorite Gracie Gold did not win gold tonight, leaving hacky sport section headline writers to put that one away for later.
- The on-course announcer for the ski jumping sounded like Community’s Dean Pelton.
- When Canadian Katelyn Osmond fell on what was described as a “difficult lutz,” the 30 Rock fan in me heard Jack Donaghy yelling “Dammit Lutz!”
- Having just seen The Crash Reel, the footage of the impressive Czech snowboarder Sarka Pancochova’s nasty spill in the slopestyle competition (she split her helmet!?) gave me a few chills—and an admiring warm feeling when she finally got up and decided to slowly ski down the rest of the course on her own. Team Sarka, over here.
- Seeing Russian president Vladimir Putin smiling approvingly at rinkside during the figure skating competition—a sport with its share of gay athletes—inevitably put me in mind of the ever-present issue of Russia’s unconscionable anti-gay policies. NBC didn’t address it—the only Russian story was a Mary Carillo puff piece about how cool Siberia really is—so I’ll leave my commentary there. Except to say that I’m watching out for the Sochi equivalent of Jesse Owens to make Putin very, very uncomfortable.