Olympic Puppy Love Strikes Again

By , Senior sports columnist of The Christian Science Monitor

We Americans are an odd lot. Every four years, we fall head over heels over backside in love with the winter Olympics.

We understand nothing about these games - except that they tend to be in the winter in some obscure place that we have heard little or nothing about. That in turn explains why I am here in the midst of the beyond, the glorious Japanese alps. Never has the word Nagano entered my head. Until now.

And now Nagano is the center of my universe. It's home for better than a fortnight for The Sporting Scene. And Nagano will be front and often prime-time center on millions of television sets in America for 128 hours.

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This is hilarious.

We get worked up - no, more than that, consumed - by competition in the luge, the biathlon, and even curling, for Nagano's sake.

Nevermind we wouldn't know a nifty luge if one parked next to us at McDonald's and certainly we can't grasp why folks want to hurtle themselves down an icy track with no effective way of steering. Stopping is problematic - basically, you wait to hear the crash. But those who are in charge of luging seem to take it seriously; they check the track's temperature at 56 different points.

The biathlon combines two things: cross-country skiing, which Americans typically aren't much good at (save the wondrous exploits of Bill Koch in 1976 and 1980), and shooting a rifle, which if the National Rifle Association's clout is any indication, Americans are very good at. Yet, when our athletes try to ski and shoot, they have zero hope of winning.

All of which brings us to curling. Curling, as you know, began in Scotland, perhaps as early as 1511, and involves sliding granite stones on ice toward a target called a house. Because there is a house, predictably there are brooms and sweeping. But Americans can't curl worth a ringlet.

We do know a trifle more about speed skating because Bonnie Blair and Dan Jansen taught us in Olympics past. We also know a bit about the men's alpine downhill since it's so simple to understand - go crazy, go fast, go straight, don't fall. We have had a few moments of greatness in it, notably Tommy Moe schussing to the gold in 1994. But this year, Moe and most everyone else is coming back from injury. We'll lose.

Our favorite thing in life every four years is figure skating, especially the women's event, where Michelle Kwan, the consummate artist, and Tara Lipinski, the consummate risk taker, could go 1-2. No question the sport is elegant and eloquent, physical and mental, stoic and emotional. Frankly, my favorite all-time figure skating moments were the Nancy Kerrigan-Tonya Harding shenanigans. Felony and sport make an intriguing pair.

Anyway, incredibly, we who know nothing abruptly are experts on a triple lutz and an axel jump. Inside and outside edges of skate blades suddenly matter to us.

The reason we come down with this puppy love every four years is that things in snow and on ice take us back - in our selective minds - to those wondrous days of yore and hot chocolate and Norman Rockwell idealism. Everything was better when sledding. Even if you grew up in Shreveport, La., you have a touch of this in you. It's over the hills and through the woods via horse-drawn sleigh to grandmother's house we go.

Too, the winter Olympics seem more innocent, more pure than the summer variety. They aren't, but the perception is that they are.

We love the winter Olympics torridly for two weeks, exactly as we did when we were in sixth grade and had a boyfriend or girlfriend for two weeks. It was fun. It made us smile. It distracted us. It seemed real. And, ultimately, it meant nothing.

Viva the Olympics. I'm in love. Let's hear it for that camel spin.

* Douglas S. Looney's e-mail address is looneyd@csps.com

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