BENNER: Down-to-earth athletes elevate Winter Olympics

February 20, 2010

The Vancouver Winter Olympics didn’t get off to the best of starts.

A Georgian luger died before the Games even had begun, and, as an aside, did we really have to see the video in super-slow-motion replay?

An equipment malfunction interrupted the climactic lighting of the Olympic flame during the Opening Ceremonies.

Poor weather caused repeated postponements of the alpine events at the ski resort of Whistler. Ski runs became ski ruts. Snow had to be trucked in for the mogul events and 20,000 fans were turned away, lest they sink up to their ankles in mud. Malfunctioning ice-grooming machines marred the speed-skating competition.

And a pack of loons seemed determined to rain (as if Vancouver hadn’t received enough already) on everyone’s parade by protesting God knows what and instigating skirmishes with the local authorities.

All that and yet, I can’t get enough. Night after night (and day after day on the weekends) I will tune in right through the extinguishing of the flame. I find the Winter Olympics in most instances absolutely refreshing.

With the exception of the NHL professionals competing in hockey; the occasional Bode Miller, Shaun White or Apolo Ohno who maintains a profile over multiple games; or a figure skater or two, these athletes truly emerge out of relative obscurity for their brief moment on the world stage, then are gone from our notice almost as quickly.

Even these games’ athlete du jour, skier Lindsey Vonn, was pretty much an unknown to the vast majority of her fellow Americans, her domination of the World Cup circuits swallowed up by the latest NFL or NBA coverage.

So I watch, and I marvel. The downhill racers personify brave. If you want to get a sense for what they do, run the car up to 80 miles an hour, stick your head outside the window, then imagine having two sticks attached to your feet with nothing around you for protection.

And there is such a fine line that defines success. In the men’s downhill, competitors careened down Whistler’s slopes at breakneck speeds over a two-mile course with the ultimate difference between gold and bronze a mere seven-thousandths of a second.

I hear snickers from the stick-and-ball types about the male figure skaters. But I’m drawn to watch, paying less attention to the sequined uniforms, and instead focusing on the combination of grace, precision and athleticism. And imagine the nervous agony of sitting on the bench, performance concluded and the television cameras training their high-definition lenses on your noggin, waiting for your Olympic fate to be decided by the Russian judge.

I don’t know a lutz from a triple toe loop, but it’s still pretty cool. And I always have wondered when the skaters go into those spins, how do they keep from getting falling-down dizzy?

In my view, the biggest hit of recent winter games has been the addition of sports like skiercross and snowboard cross—those crash-filled, anything-goes, downhill free-for-alls—or the “boarder dudes” in the halfpipe doing those crazy acrobatics.

A special moment early on was witnessing the Canadian moguls skier become the first from his country to win a gold medal on the home turf. We Yanks tend to take the success of our athletes for granted. But for the Canadians, the victory sparked a countrywide celebration. The only negative came the next night when, as “O Canada” played during the medal ceremony, he left his stocking cap on.

Son, uncover for your national anthem.

Anyway, this Midwestern flatlander finds all the slipping, sliding, skiing and skating totally compelling. While giving proper focus to its predominantly American audience, NBC deserves props for bringing light to the stories of foreign athletes in less-well-known disciplines.

The Winter Olympics reminds us of athletes who pursue excellence mostly for the pure joy of the competition. Many—most, in fact—are there with no chance to bring home a medal. The achievement was to make it to Vancouver and fly your country’s colors.

Ratings have been strong despite the early challenges.

I know I’m so hooked I even have the DVR set to catch curling.•


Benner is director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.com. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. Benner also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.


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