by Guy Somerset
So closes another Olympic Winter Games and hopefully all the mouths of those who claim "you can see it better on television" as well. Like most things in this world, while there may be an element of accuracy in this oft-repeated statement it misses the essential truth of the matter. For those who doubt it, ask yourself how many individuals prefer the dull antiseptic paper of pornography to the warm and comforting company of a passionately live partner? (Hint: The answer is exactly no one.) In other words, there is nothing like the real thing in person.
Be that as it may, now comes the time when an approximately 2,922 participants pack their bags and say their Das Vedanyas. (That is, assuming we are allowed to speak Russian in the Olympic village? Take no offense President Bach, I jest, I jest.) Throughout the past two weeks have been all the usual atypical examples of human heights and lows though in the event some may have been inadvertently overlooked below is a review of the best, the worst and the Western media...a category which speaks for itself.
Standing tall atop of the podium from these Winter Games were numerous individuals who distinguished themselves in a variety of manners - and not all by succeeding in their categories. In fact, while it has become quite the trope in this modern age the thrill of watching a competitor rise above himself still sends a thrill through the heart.
The American Men's Curling Team was credited by almost no one to be a serious threat to the powerhouse nations such as Great Britain, Switzerland and Sweden. Most recently, Americans had finished 10th and 9th respectively in Vancouver and Sochi. Yet despite a slow beginning, the team proved their mettle by defeating more esteemed opponents. Still for many the most significant aspect of the ultimate victory was not another medal but lay in the significance not so long ago John Shuster and fellow teammates were known as "Team Rejects" after being asked to leave the official roster by USA Curling. These were men dismissed by the international community and disrespected in even their own homeland. At any time they might have accepted their ignominy and gone on to lead normal lives; instead, they chose to practice harder, fight for their place on the team and lead their nation to gold.
Another inspiring story, though somewhat more revealing, ensued during the Short Dance of the Ice Dance event. Competing for France, and widely viewed to be high in medal contention, skater Gabriella Papadakis endured the sort of humiliation born of a thousand adolescent nightmares when her costume unexpectedly came undone mid-routine. Worse, according to the rules such an occurrence would be regarded as a mere inconvenience not materially interfering with the skating itself. The effect of this was that while the breast of Papadakis was exposed to the judges, spectators and entire world who viewed her live she could not pause to make a repair. Realizing this would end her dream, and that of her skating partner Guillaume Cizeron, Papadakis chose to continue. The pair finished second that evening and went on to win the Silver Medal after posting a personal best in the Free Dance one night later.
Simen Hegstad Krueger of Norway was always rated as a formidable entry in the Men's Cross-Country Skiathlon. An event which encompasses 30 kilometers, its rules dictate the first 15 Km to be done by classical technique while the last 15 Km to be done freestyle. It is a grueling endeavor which requires the maximum exertion of its participants. This is all the more difficult when a man falls flat on his face in the initial moments of the race, as happened to Krueger at the start. A slip on the first lap resulted in the skier not only flailing on the ground but with another two men on top of him as well. As if this alone were not enough, one of his poles snapped during the accident. Even so, Krueger exemplified the genuine Olympic spirit by rising up and continuing - by the mid-point of the race he had rejoined the lead pack and by the end he had won with a time of 1 hour, 16 minutes and 20 seconds.
Unfortunately not all Olympic stories are heroic ones. As with any large group of personalities some will be wonderful and most will be affable but a few will be downright rotten. Having begun with the Americans we should continue the theme as it was during the Opening Ceremony perpetual crybaby Shani Davis chose this spotlight to steal from more worthy representatives. Davis who, (as he never tires of telling us) is the most decorated black man in skating, was in a voting tie with Luger Erin Hamlin to be the American flagbearer. Under these circumstances it is established the balloting will be broken by a coin toss, as is often the custom. Shani voiced no opposition to this resolution - until he lost the toss.
Davis then immediately, and churlishly, resorted to taunts and tantrums on Twitter and after several rambling sentences eventually came to the conclusion coins are now "racist." Yet Shani was not done with his antics and after failing to place higher than seventh in his event refused to speak to the media and later, as with the Opening Ceremony, chose not to march in the Closing Ceremony either. Given the tremendous asterisk placed beside some of his previous alleged "wins" it is no surprise the vast majority of Americans didn't miss Davis and were actually thankful not to have him represent the country.
No doubt many in South Korea felt the same regarding their own posterchild for poor sportsmanship in the persons of Kim Bo-reum and Park Ji-woo. Following the Women's Team Pursuit Quarterfinals that entry was eliminated from competition. Rather than accept this disappointment with grace or, at the very least, with stoic reservation, these two chose to focus their wrath upon the third party representing their homeland, Noh Seon-yeong.
During the news conference after the race each placed blame squarely upon their colleague which, even if accurate, demonstrated a total lack of magnanimity, team-spirit or even basic human decency. For her part, Noh was abandoned on the ice by these two classic "mean girls" as she wept over the bitter results. Clearly this reaction was that of a fellow competitor who had given her all and come up short of the mark and hardly evidenced a slacker who did not strive for the goal. Thankfully, South Korean citizens rebuked this smear on their honor and more than half a million signed a petition to immediately disqualify the venomous Kim and Park from the ranks of Olympians.
Speaking of disqualification, there is a special place in purgatory for those who take the brief moment of glory reserved for their betters and fixate only on themselves. In the final game of Women's Ice Hockey the Americans defeated the Canadians by a shoot-out. To be sure, there is a long history of rivalry between the teams going back over twenty years. In recent Winter Games the Canadians have bested the Americans numerous times in the Final Round. So it was with deserved satisfaction that the American women enjoyed their victory celebration on the ice.
Unfortunately, it was precisely this instant that spoiled brat Jocelyn Larocque took to train the focus clearly on herself. Rather than congratulate the victors a smugly defiant Larocque removed the silver medal which had recently been placed around her neck and with surly expression looked away. She commented later she was "going for gold." Well, she is a 24-Karat loser whose medal should have been immediately rescinded and her presence removed from the venue as an affront to the Games.
Of all the things which can be positively said of the Winter Games as broadcast in America probably the most complimentary is that the anchors appeared to be awake for most of the time on-air. However, as per usual, NBC and its myriad of channels managed to make almost everyone angry for one reason or another. It is a rare thing in the United States when an entity can cause universal hatred, yet every single Olympic Games NBC achieves this goal.
For those not in a position to have suffered through the entirety here are a few lowlights of note:
During the Opening Ceremony the lead host was former morning show personality Katie Couric who for all the world looked and sounded exactly the proverbial "cat lady" on your street who lives alone and makes every encounter into a ninety minute one-sided conversation. By the finish of the parade of nations there was such profundity of inanity from her mouth it was an event of itself to discover whether love of the Games could outlast a loathing of this morbid stupidity. Incidentally, there was a running bet between a companion and myself whether or not she might have been on some sort of mood altering depressants.
Couple this with the comments of an East Asia "expert" who extolled the love of the Koreans for the Japanese (who for most of recorded history tend to repeatedly send military occupations as their peace envoys) and one can estimate the degree of total nonsense which filled the air that night.
Over the course of the Games themselves there was a deeply disturbing racial angle which made itself all too apparent. In numerous instances NBC chose to highlight estimable but undistinguished athletes of color over their paler though more able teammates. By the end of the first week this had the noxious aroma of preening patronization if not outright fetishization. Those who ought to have been treated solely on their merits were instead defined by their melanin. This was doubly unfortunate as it tended to lessen the achievements of those who legitimately rose to the top in their sports. Although not her fault, Maame Biney was endlessly profiled by the network even though she was the worst performer among American women on the ice. Heather Bergsma and Brittany Bowe won a Bronze Medal in the Team Pursuit, the first women's speed skating award in sixteen years, yet there was little to no mention of it as compared the elegiacs to Biney, who failed to even advance in her own discipline.
Likewise, after the Short Dance of the Ice Dance competition when the pair of Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donahue placed third with the Shibutani twins in fourth place it was for NBC to repeat several times on-air that in fact there was no real difference between third and fourth positions whatsoever - at the Olympics, where most positions are decided in fractions. Moreover, there were no mini-documentaries concerning Hubbell and Donahue though there were dozens aired for the "Shib Sibs" amid the fawning coverage. That the Shibutanis later surmounted the early deficit and won the Bronze Medal is of great credit to them and their dedication. At the same time, that they were used for what amounts to racial propaganda by NBC is shameful and nauseating.
Another of the more disturbing aspects of the politicization of the games was the Gold Medal match between Russia and Germany. It originally aired live on an NBC subsidiary in the middle of the night for the east coast. This was acceptable, given the time difference between the venue and the mainland. What was not acceptable was that this game was not re-aired during the following day. Instead, there were no less than three hour-long "recaps" of various medal ceremonies, an enlightening if not misplaced broadcast about the Mexico Summer Games from fifty years before and hours upon hours of infomercials on NBC channels which might have been shown a game by every account thrilling; no less because the victorious Russians refused to be cowed into disassociating themselves from the Motherland. The vision of players singing a banned national anthem was one of the most evocative of any Games.
By time of the Closing Ceremonies expectations could not be any lower though again NBC managed to surpass itself. The program was not shown Live, it was edited for content, strictly censored by off-center camera angles to cut out Ivanka Trump who sat next to the South Korean Presidential couple and had so many commercials one wonders whether they accounted for more minutes than the ceremony itself. The commentators who replaced the somnolent Katie Couric were a surprising though refreshing experience. While much may be said against Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir the two kept personal anecdotes to a minimum and what they did offer was actually associated with the situation on screen.
Overall, NBC proved itself to be as bad as everyone always expects - only worse. Jim Bell is the Olympics Producer and should, without reservation, lose his job. Suggestions as to what should be immediately implemented (and ought to have been four games past): 1) Dedicate one channel to Live coverage with zero to minimal commentary and no commercials other than unobtrusive advertisement logos, 2) Hire intelligent anchors for the Opening and Closing Ceremonies and do not edit either, 3) Only broadcast documentaries about athletes who succeed based on ability rather than color, ethnicity or any other category, 4) Quit choosing favorite athletes since you are so bad at it given everyone "highlighted" by your personality programming department failed and many anonymous athletes succeeded.
There are great stories at the Olympics, but they are not manufactured stories - that is one aspect underlying their greatness.
A Flame Which Yet Burns Brightly
Indeed, of those who made a name for himself without making the pillar of success a favorite of many was Pita Taufatofua of Tonga. Admittedly, he of the shirtless entrance was notable for several reasons, though the most compelling was not his physique but his mental attitude. Competing in Men's Cross Country Skiing the equatorial athlete had spent the majority of the past years training not on asphalt. In fact, Taufatofua had not even experienced his sport on snow until only twelve weeks before. Despite this notable setback he managed to finish 114 out of 116 on the day of the race.
More importantly, he remained on the course to congratulate the man who crossed the line last. When interviewed about his achievement the sportsman gave an estimable reply directed at his fellow countrymen, "It's your turn next. I had my turn. You guys got to come and take it to the next level. I finished. You guys come and finish better than I finish."
Indeed, of those 2,922 Olympians mentioned at the beginning of this article it is worth remembering that at the closing of these games only 272 medals will be handed out for the ninety events. Actually, I beg your pardon; every single athlete received what is known as a Participation Medal. While it may seem perfunctory to the uninformed it is a fact worth noting because so many of the greatest competitors of all time have gone on the record to start they are more proud of this award than even those awarded in their specific categories of achievement.
As anyone worth having been involved in any way can attest, for the best of us the maxim still holds true - the purpose of the Olympic Games is not to win, but to participate.
Guy Somerset writes from somewhere in America.
Europe which is panic-stricken over the consequences of rising energy and food prices could strike a treacherous blow to Ukraine this winter, writes Simon Tisdall for The Guardian.