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Columns

When It’s Okay to Be American
on the World Stage:

The 2010 Winter Olympics, and the Fine Line Between Good and “I Get It Already, You’re Good”

Phil West

It was bravado bordering on boorish—an hour after receiving the gold medal, a team of athletes returned to the very surface of play on which they’d vanquished their opponents, swilling beer and champagne, smoking cigars, and acting in a manner that the International Olympic Committee did not find in keeping with the Olympic spirit.

Ladies and Gentlemen, your 2010 Canadian women’s hockey team!

Maybe that’s not the defining moment of these Winter Olympics games, but Canadians celebrating, after beating Americans in a manner that you’d expect of, well, Americans, in a Canadian province perhaps as close to a 51st state of America than even some U.S. territories, is a good place to start.

I’ve always been a fan of the Winter Olympics—in large part because February’s an awful time of year for sports if you’re a sports enthusiast, and the sight of two weeks of wall-to-wall high drama and high stakes sports are a welcome sight, in part because I’m half-Canadian and have a sort of primal leaning toward seeing snow on TV, and in part because of its mini-series-like quality—it lasts for a finite time but unscrolls in episodic fashion, with all sorts of fascinating side stories along the way.

At the end, the Americans medaled more than any other country, in part because it had entrants in so many events, whereas countries like Ghana, for example, just had one skier. (Who was nicknamed "The Snow Leopard." Who was interviewed on the Today Show by special correspondent Jenna Bush. I'll repeat that now for effect: Who was interviewed on the Today Show by special correspondent Jenna Bush.) And it was Canada, not the U.S., ending up with the most gold medals. In a caveat that maybe seems like an excuse, these are sports that we are really only invested in every four years. You could argue that some Americans might not be invested in these sports at all—a recent Saturday Night Live episode featuring Jennifer Lopez was based on the question, “How would Telemundo cover the Winter Olympics?” While not particularly funny, the skit did point out that plenty of folks in warm weather climes never see snow, let alone accumulations of snow, and have never been on skates. (Presumably, Ghana sees at least some snow.)

But, as you might surmise, there are fans of these sports in different parts of the world who don’t embrace it with the sort of jokey aplomb that Stephen Colbert did when he adopted (and partially bankrolled) this year’s speed-skating team.

For instance, newly-crowned women’s figure skating champion Kim Nu-Ya—I think I heard this right during NBC’s profile on her—made close to $8 million last year endorsing all kinds of things. The profile included an interviewee commenting on one of her TV commercials, featuring her swaying to a techno recording that is actually her voice. “She’s selling a fridge,” the interviewee said.

The profile also shows the crowds of thousands who routinely assemble to watch her skate in exhibitions. In the U.S., when thousands gather to watch skating exhibitions, it’s either fresh off the Olympics or it’s something like Dora the Explorer on Ice, where former aspiring Olympians suffer the indignity of being Boots the Monkey or Swiper the Fox.

There are skiing fans and speed-skating fans and evidently there are even bobsledding fans, who have gathered at the finish line of these Olympics, shirtless. Curling is the standard sport that gets joked about at the winter games, but there’s an amazing hypnotic quality to the sport, and this year, male sports talk show hosts around the nation have noticed a sort of a cougary appeal to some of the female curlers. If you have any doubts as to how awesome other countries are, there is a Swedish death metal band called Hammerfall, with a video featuring the Swedish women’s curling team called “Hearts on Fire” (Curling Version).

The Summer Games come in summer, but there are all sorts of vacation-y distractions happening in the summer, and when it’s a particularly good Presidential election, there’s metaphor and photo op and jingoism lurking within the very fabric of how Americans follow the Games. Especially jingoism—maybe never able to reach the Reagan-in-charge, Soviet bloc-less ’84 Games in Los Angeles—but jingoism nonetheless.

But in the Winter Games, it never reaches that same apex just because Americans aren’t as good in as many of the sports that matter. In men’s hockey, the Americans are typically scrappy upstarts. In figure skating, there might be one or two Americans challenging for a medal, but so many strange, unpredictable things can happen in a figure skating competition that it’s hard to believe an American can be a credible favorite, and for those of us who grew up seeing Communist country skaters under the steely gaze of imperious coaches, it’s easy to figure that there are just maybe some competitors who want it a little bit more than the Americans do.

This year, the biggest rivalry involving Americans in the Winter Games have been between two female downhill skiers, Lindsey Vonn and Julia Mancuso, who are, quite frankly, kind of hard to tell apart. Both are beautiful and probably have massive endorsement deals waiting for them, and both have medaled in this Games.

When media folks tried to make a big deal of the feud between them—which included Vonn wiping out on the giant slalom course right before Mancuso made her run, and Mancuso having to start over after getting halfway through because Vonn took so long to get off the course, which is akin to running half of a 400-meters race and then having to start over because of someone else’s false start error —Mancuso attempted to mitigate the situation by writing, “Save the drama for your mama” on her Facebook.

This, of course, is a disappointment when considering the ’94 Winter Games in Lillehammer, Norway, and the blood feud between Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding. Really, from the initial revelations that Kerrigan had been mysteriously whacked on the leg with a tire iron, to the really juicy revelations that someone in Harding’s camp was responsible, to Kerrigan recovering and winning a silver medal while Harding became a generational symbol for grace and charm, it was not only the greatest saga in Winter Olympics history, but maybe the Greatest Story Ever Told.

The only disappointing thing about the story, looking back to it now, was that it didn’t unfold in an era of social media. Tabloids and the dawn of the Internet era gave us news of wedding night sex tapes and nasty divorces and one bizarre 911 call, letting us know that Tonya Harding would prove to be the gift that keeps on giving. But think about Tonya Harding in an age of blossoming social media. Can you imagine how delicious it would have been had it been her and not Mancuso busting out with a “Save the drama for your mama” on her Facebook page? Imagine, for a moment, what a Tonya Harding Facebook page would look like. Or how about watching the women’s ice skating finals being live-Tweeted?

Now, of course, we don’t have to imagine. I, myself, have engaged in an enjoyable live chat around the men’s figure skating competition, in which we conclusively determined that an Italian competitor was dressed as one of Dexy’s Midnight Runners during his short program. But the biggest controversy to come of the skating this year was 2010 silver medalist (and 2006 gold medalist) Evgeny Plushenko basically saying that 2010 gold medalist Evan Lycasek wasn’t a real man for not attempting a quad jump during either of his programs. “If there is not a jump quad,” he sniffed, non-syntactically, “it is not skating, it is dancing.” Lycasek did not, sadly, take the bait in any of his follow-up interviews.

And that’s sort of typified the American response this games—humble in victory, gracious in defeat, letting other nations taking the lead in buttheadedness. In speed-skating, American hero Apolo Ohno lucked into his seventh career medal in a race where two South Korean skaters took each other out in a collision on the final lap, and did the same for an eight medal in a men’s relay in his final race, when a Chinese skater went wide at the end of the race. An American women’s relay team getting thoroughly humiliated as the fourth-place team in a four-team race lucked into the bronze when the South Koreans were disqualified for causing a Chinese skater to crash. (Note, even with the crash happening, the Chinese team still beat the Americans by 4 seconds in a 2-minute race.)

Indeed, seemingly-dominant Americans did not appear all that dominant even when they were. American skier Bode Miller, for example, won a gold, a silver, and a bronze in three of his races, and finishes the best-ever American downhill skier—yet he failed to finish two of his five events in spectacularly bad fashion—as feast or famine as you could possibly expect in an Olympics.

The final moment in weighing American vs. Canadian supremacy in these Winter Games (that’s right, I said Canadian supremacy and meant it) was the men’s Gold Medal hockey game on the Olympiad’s final day. There will be much gushing about this game in the near-future, and it won’t necessarily be hyperbole to call it the greatest hockey game in Olympics history, 1980 Miracle on Ice nonwithstanding. Watching Twitter during the game was fascinating—scores of people on my feed (and on hundreds of thousands of feeds across the country) were caught up in hockey action like they’d probably never been before, or probably never will again.

At the end, when Canada scored an overtime goal, Americans were disappointed, to be sure, but there was a collective sense that the disappointment would be fleeting. Had the Canadians lost, there’s a sense that the defeat would have been more deeply-felt and crippling and long-term. The feeling is almost, dare I say it, let them have their little hockey victory, and we’ll just go back to being the world’s lone superpower. Or, as Twitter celebrity Tim Siedell (@badbanana) tweeted after the game was over, “That's okay, Canada. We'll still let you sneak into our country for quality health care.”

The bookends to these Games were strange, to be sure—right before it started, a luger from Georgia died in one of the final training runs before the start of the Games, and that threatened to cast a pallor of “Why does this all really matter?” over the entire proceedings. For the slam poets among us, the appearance of Shane Koyczan delivering a poem articulating Canadian pride in the Opening Ceremonies was jarring and delightful and surreal all at once. What was perhaps more startling—and reassuring—about the opening was how many people were interested in the games. The death of an Olympic athlete became more about sacrifice and a community of athletes coming together instead of the lunatic danger inherent in some of the sports. The IOC has to be thankful we wanted the story of togetherness this time around.

As I finish this essay, I’m watching what appears to be the comedy portion of the Closing Ceremonies, and yes, it appears that someone’s put William Shatner in our Olympic experience. But even the comedy portion of the event included Michael J. Fox, whose public battle with Parkinson’s Disease makes for a weird effect of him upstaging himself – seeing him get through his routine with relatively little evidence of the more debilitating elements on Parkinson’s still overshadows what he might be doing in performance—especially since the last time Fox came into the spotlight with comparable magnitude, it was him cruelly interpreted by Rush Limbaugh.

Catherine O’Hara, as part of the comedy section, joked about how accustomed Canadians are to saying sorry, but they really have nothing to say sorry about here. This was a remarkably instructional Olympics—maybe even more so than past Winter Olympics, these sixteen days showed us that Americans can participate in the world community in a more humble and egalitarian way than maybe some expect of us so shortly after the George W. Bush Era. It would certainly be a sweeping statement to say that this team is more Obama-like in its approach —especially since we already might be making distinctions stateside between Candidate Obama, Healer of the World, and President Obama, Who Grapples with Republicans. That’s not the right approach to take here.

Let’s put it in really simple terms—we kicked enough ass to show the rest of the world we’re just better than others at a lot of things, but not so much that we came off like jerks who have to win everything and pout and invade sovereign nations when we don’t get our way.

We did a good job being Americans this time around. Can we continue the string for the next Summer Olympics? As long as there’s basketball involved, I’m not holding my breath, but maybe we can learn from our Canadian hosts and their reputed politeness. (Save, of course, for their women’s hockey team.)

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