Thursday, February 16, 2006

Why I Like the Winter Olympics

Alright, I’m kind of fed up by all the joking criticism the Winter Olympic Games are getting. From the complaint that everything is pre-taped to questioning of the relevance of particular events like curling, to many people it seems that the games are for the most part a waste of time. Somehow we're better off ignoring sports highlighted once every four years so that we can focus on more exciting team sports like college basketball’s “March Madness” and the beginning of the baseball season. To which I respond with a big ‘ughh!’ Shouldn’t one just let go and simply soak up the unusual and yet fascinating sports once every four years?

It’s true many of the sports featured in the Winter Olympics could never command a permanently large audience like the more traditional team sports. Making a living as a skier, snowboarder or figure skater is extremely difficult, and the only real incentive for competing is for the love of the sport. But just because the sports are neither commercially nor professionally viable does not mean the Olympics can’t offer the more exhilarating action and beauty than anything else out there. The picturesque snow-covered venues for the outdoor events, the dizzying jumps and spins made possible by skates, the gleaming icy surfaces on which permit the body to travel faster than is humanly possible, —all of it is a treat for viewers like me who marvel at the ideals of faster, higher, and ever more graceful. I’ll take any coverage of sports that combine technology, art and precision where I can find it.

Part of the commercial success of team sports over individual competitive sports is the simplicity of the former. To play soccer, all one needs is a ball and ten other teammates. Football requires a ball and the primordial ability to throw, catch, run and tackle. Baseball is about hitting a ball with a big stick and catching the ball with the enhancement of a glove. By contrast, figure skating not only requires you to know how to skate, but to move the body in ways that are only confined by one’s imagination and the force of gravity. Skiing not only requires one to know how to ski (from my own experience, it doesn’t necessarily come naturally) but also the knowledge of how to negotiate icy terrain and calculate the shortest distance. Luge looks easy to many, but if it were, how come so few in the world are willing travel up to eighty miles an hour on ice? Some question the validity of snow-boarding as Olympic worthy, to which I reply: of course it is! Every time I go skiing, at least a quarter of the people on the mountain are snow-boarders, and it isn’t restricted to youngsters. Few even attempt the somersaults featured in the half-pipe events as that skill demands gymnastic talent beyond the mere skill of knowing how to snowboard.

The Winter Olympics provide an aesthetic richness to sport I find mostly lacking in popular team sports. Sure there’s beauty in the perfect throw or goal, but I’m more captivated by elegant forms, whether by the apparatus used by the athlete (the skis, the bobsled, the aerodynamic outfits) or by the bodies in motion. Maybe that’s why the ice hockey competition is my least preferred event, as it’s a bunch of guys in bulky padding and masks clumsily chasing a puck and whacking it to the goal however they can. Heck, even in curling there is a precision and patience that is far more appealing. My perspective is somewhat influenced by my few years in competitive gymnastics. I never reached a high level of accomplishment in the sport, but I did develop a deep appreciation for the discipline’s emphasis on the purity of form, pace, and choreography. I can’t think of any other sport that combines strength, flexibility, rhythm, balance and art as powerfully as gymnastics. The winter sports incorporate many of these similar qualities, and for me they are as much a celebration of the potential of the human body as they are about who wins the medals. I sincerely hope that many of the critics of the Winter Games would pause and just take in the speed and grace unique to the events.

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