Amid churn of skates and skis, moments of grace
PRAGELATO, ITALY — Alongside the T-bone heft of skiers such as Hermann Maier and Michael Walchhofer, Thomas Morgenstern is a curious addition to the Austrian Olympic team.
If he were not a gold-medal-winning ski jumper, he might make a fairly decent paperweight. Yet in the air, there is a moment when his lightness becomes sublime - when he is not fighting the laws of physics but rather is utterly immune to them, hanging like some spread-eagle Christmas ornament in the Italian night.
With the notable exception of figure skating, these are supposed to be the adrenaline Olympics, where wild-eyed athletes do everything short of setting their pants on fire and have legs that could keep a team of lumberjacks busy for an afternoon.
Then Morgenstern floats earthward, snowflake-soft, and a whole new Olympics appears: beauty in a crash helmet.
Perhaps artistry is not obvious at 80 m.p.h., when Eric Bernotas begins to blur the line between man and missile. But from trackside, skeleton can appear to be either an unholy scratching of boots as sliders claw for control or an almost celestial search for the perfect line.
Inside the chute, as Bernotas guides his sled with an almost intuitive feel for the ice, "it's an incredible feeling to make it a dance and to learn how to go along with it," says the American.
In the luge start house before every race, Italian Armin Zoeggeler needs only a partner, a three-piece suit, and the strains of "The Blue Danube" to warrant a place on "Dancing With the Stars." Ignoring the bustling of men in skintight suits all around him, he closes his eyes and sways - not to the rhythms of an iPod, but to the inscrutable turns of the track in his imagination.
Like all the world's best lugers, Zoeggeler has memorized the entire Olympic track. The mundane matter of lifting your head to see where you are going is aerodynamic suicide in the only Olympic sport timed to thousandths of a second. So he doesn't. Then he rides down the track, inch-perfect - as if on rails.
When American Tony Benshoof is having difficulty with a particular turn, he will often sit beside the luge track for an hour, gauging the imperceptible movements of descending sleds like Monet measuring twilight on the Rouen cathedral. "When you are your fastest," he says, "you are so calm it is almost serene."
These are moments of grace amid the jarring spectacle of brute force, as pure and perfect as the line of any figure skater but far more unexpected. Sometimes it is a mere flash out of the frenzy of skates and skis - such as the effortless acceleration of speed skater Shani Davis through the corners, or the liquid turns of Benjamin Raich in the giant slalom, his body winding serpentlike through the poles while his skis ride whisper-silent on the snow.
Then there are twinkles of such cosmic calm that an entire building seems to shudder. In short-track skating, "there are things you just can't control," says American Allison Baver - such as the jailbreak of bodies thrusting and pressing for the finish line. Yet Korean Sun-Yu Jin seems to have received a hall pass that excuses herself from the rules that apply to the rest of the known universe.
In an instant - with no adequate explanation of how she is able to do it - she merely skates around everyone else, forsaking the more direct inside line to move from last to first in a burst of energy that surely registers in deep space. She is a superhero in a shiny blue suit, needing only a cape to complete the effect.
By the normal standards of the Winter Olympics, where grown men whoop like Vikings as they push a hammer-headed steamroller down the bobsled track, she looks somewhat peculiar. She has no supersized thighs and would not appear at all out of place sitting in the average high school history class.
Then again, by Winter Olympic standards, ski jumper Morgenstern might be the athlete most likely to lose his lunch money at recess. Standing next to skis that appear roughly the right size for Paul Bunyan, he and the other men of ski jumping sometimes look like human pencil cups on the verge of tipping over.
They are the penguins of the Winter Olympics, oddly out of place on the ground, waddling in awkward boots and suits that seem overstarched. Yet in the air, they are in a different element. And in that short breath of time, suspended weightless above the winking lights of Pragelato, they become an Olympic still life on skis.