Pining for Dross Amid Nagano's Gold

Olympic Commentary

To understand the Nagano Olympics we have to understand American chauvinism. And be honest about ourselves. First, what most of us really want is American dominance - or at the very least, serious American competitiveness in everything - and when we don't get it, we click the remote control. Second, while we get real mouthy about how much we want to hear positive things and not negative things, the truth seems to be the opposite.

That's what was wrong with the Olympics that concluded Sunday. While the US athletes certainly performed fine, they just as certainly did not sweep the world, winning just six of the 69 gold medals. And, according to the Nielsen ratings, the entire event went too smoothly. Too much good news. Too much joy. Too much positive. To many records. Too much good will by the Japanese people.

Were television viewers gagging on goodness?

That's why word drifting across the Pacific from the US was that many Americans found the Games more than a bit boring. In the post-Evil Empire era, gone is America vs. those nasty Soviet-bloc nations. For dramatic tension, what Nagano needed was, let's see, let's make up something fanciful, say a figure skater being whacked on her knee in a plot involving a competitor. The Tonya and Nancy duel in Lillehammer produced the fourth highest television ratings in US history.

Whither the woe this time?

The litany of sticky wonderfulness was only stemmed slightly early on by the Canadian snowboard winner Ross Rebagliati being busted for marijuana.

But he got to keep his gold medal on a rules technicality. Then, the otherwise plain-vanilla fortnight truly was saved only in the Games' sunset hours by the horrible performance and despicable behavior of the US men's hockey team. They didn't care and they didn't try. What some of them did do was trash their rooms at the Olympic Village. Thank goodness for Americans.

Indeed, without the dope-smoking Canadian and a few drunken American hockey players, the games would have been a total wipeout for perfection - save for erratic weather. But be fair, it's winter in the mountains. What did we expect? The Games were perilously close to being just Games. Is that so awful? Television ratings in the US, and general public reaction, indicate pure Olympics - like G-rated movies - don't travel into many family rooms nearly as well as the R-rated variety.

So, we were reduced to taking what pleasure we could in sensational sporting achievements, by US athletes - 13 medals overall, a tie for the most ever, and precisely in line with expectations - and others.

Tara Lipinski uncorked the skate of her life, narrowly upsetting Michelle Kwan, who put on a strangely sparkless performance in which her cool elegance went over the edge into coldness. A telling bobble on a jump did her in. With the exuberance of youth and with rapidly growing sophistication, Lipinski figure skated perfectly, nonstop from Nagano into our hearts.

The US women's hockey team won gold and affection with a victory over Canada. Nobody seemed to mind, or even want to mention, that the level of play in this new sport is minimal. Only Canada and the US play the game credibly. There was talk concerning who would be on the Wheaties box. Said one American player, "We were told it was going to be Picabo Street or us. Why not us?" Why not?

We aren't so bright yet about freestyle skiing, it being so new. Still we enjoyed Jonny Moseley, who tamed all others to win the moguls and was remarkably perceptive, saying, "I know this will change my life. But I hope it won't change me." He will find it will do both. We'll learn to love moguls and aerials if we keep winning at them.

There were a couple of near misses involving hero creation. Picabo Street was the upset winner in the Super G. She predicted that she'd win the downhill, too, whereupon she finished sixth and admitted she didn't go all out. We don't require so much of our heroes any more, but we still like to think they will go all out in an Olympic race. Her gold lost a bit of its luster.

The Olympics were, unmistakably, a celebration of lofty achievement, as they always are and we knew they would be. If only they could have seen Americans win all the gold medals and if only they could have been Tonyaized some.

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

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