When the margins for error are nil

The interstate speeds of many sports have produced high-profile crashes. But the Games' difficulty is also their allure.

The Winter Olympics is a tough gig.

Here you are, darting among a forest of plastic slalom poles like some scared teenager fleeing for his life in "The Blair Witch Project," and somewhere along those 55 turns - you don't even know where - your ski went a few inches to the right of where it was supposed to go, and now you are seen as a failure.

Or perhaps in short track, you happen to run into a rugby scrum while riding a thread of steel thinner than a credit card, and you stumble, causing 250 million people who didn't care about you a month ago to tear out their eyebrows.

Or maybe you just crash into a million pieces on the downhill training run.

Yes, Bode Miller, Apolo Anton Ohno, and Lindsey Kildow are elite athletes, so there are expectations - many justified. But perhaps the lesson of this Olympics so far is an appreciation of just how minuscule the margins for error are in the winter Games, where the slightest twitch at interstate speeds can mean disaster.

It is, on one hand, a frustration. No one wants to see a nation's brightest athletes stumble and slide out of medal contention. After all, the Olympics are more about building a mythology than appreciating the sports themselves, and a string of Did Not Finishes is hardly the stuff of Homer and Sophocles. There was no ancient Greek god of mediocrity.

Yet the difficulty sewed into the seams of winter sports is also their greatest allure. At times, the women's downhill Wednesday looked more like a rodeo than a skiing event.

After a World Cup event at the site last year, skiers complained that the hill was too easy. The response was to add everything but Scylla and Charybdis. On the first training day of the Games, the defending gold medalist plowed into a snow fence at top speed, and Kildow was airlifted to a hospital after one of the course's new rolls jounced her, boots over head, down the slope. Wednesday, in flat light that made the terrain almost impossible to see, the run was a feat of pure will for some skiers.

Amid the bumps, "I just tried to trust myself," said American Stacey Cook.

The bottom of the hill felt like a ring-side seat at the Colosseum, minus the man-eating lions. Each skier, bindings rattling beneath her, was sporting with mortal peril.

The winter Games always hover near that line. But perhaps this edition has gotten nearer than usual. Along with the images of Ted Ligety and Chad Hedrick, there is the picture of luger Samantha Retrosi smashing into a sidewall, and pairs figure skater Zhang Dan crashing while attempting a quadruple salchow - a maneuver so difficult that it has never been landed in competition.

Add to that the high-profile bobbles of Americans in medal contention, and these Games have occasionally resembled one long blooper reel for US audiences. And Thursday marks the introduction of snowboardcross - a snowboarding steeplechase where mid-mountain pileups are regular.

In truth, America's lot doesn't look too different from that of the rest of the world. In the combined race where Miller was disqualified, his top two competitors - an Austrian and a Norwegian - also blew out of the course, leaving three men on the podium who had no inkling of ever being there.

It is the tease of the Olympics. Every four years, it condenses the drama of sport into seconds-long packets of pure drama. It is no season-long slog to the Super Bowl, or an NCAA title played out over a month of madness. It is one swing to win the World Series.

Olympians often miss. But every so often, there is a minute where everything is utterly and cosmically perfect - and the world stops. Thursday, there are still 10 days to watch and to hope.

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