The Winter Olympics, I learned from covering five of them, provide a snow globe of memories. Mine started with the US hockey miracle and Eric Heiden’s five gold medal speedskating sweep in 1980 in Lake Placid. They ended with gold medalist's Oksana Baiul's momentary eclipse of the Nancy Kerrigan-Tonya Harding figure skating soap opera in Lillehammer, Norway, in 1994.
In between, there was the revolutionary skating perfection of British ice dancers Torville and Dean at Sarajevo in 1984, the offbeat debut of the Jamaican bobsled team at Calgary in 1988, and the avant-garde opening ceremony at Albertville (oh, those French!) in 1992.
In 1998, I turned in my Olympic press pass for a seat in front of TV. While other people collect Olympic pins, I accumulate impressions from watching NBC’s coverage and reading Olympic dispatches far from Vancouver. Here are some of them:
Shouldn’t the International Ice Hockey Federation (and by extension, the International Olympic Committee) be worried about the wide gulf in women’s hockey? When the Canadians beat Slovakia and Switzerland by the combined score of 28-to-1, and the US crushes Russia and China by a combined 25-to-1 tally, this doesn’t speak well for the sport’s international development. Women’s hockey, after all, is now in its fourth Olympics.
Red-headed American snowboarder Shaun White (“The Flying Tomato”) shared a funny story on NBC about his mother taking his 2006 halfpipe gold medal to the dry cleaners to have the ribbon cleaned – and leaving the coveted medal attached. But shouldn’t the network have asked more questions of White about the private, 500-ft.-long halfpipe he uses to train in Colorado, which is only accessible by helicopter. For example, how much did it cost and how was it constructed – and does his snowboarding success foot the bill?
The painted-on blue course lines used in Alpine skiing events are helpful visual aids for the skiers, but they detract from the natural beauty of the slopes. Then, again, those ski runs are carved into the landscape and the snow carefully groomed, so the “natural” look, at least to a degree, is just that – a look.
Olympic officials who closely watch the misappropriation of the Olympic name and bully pulpit have been on guard in Vancouver. They reportedly have called for covering up “Night Train” painted on an American bobsled and removing the words “Support Our Troops” from the mask of a US hockey goalie.
The third time’s the charm. After seeing their athletes shut out of gold medals in Montreal in 1976 and Calgary in 1988, Canadians finally got their first opportunity to hear “O Canada” played during a home-turf medals presentation. With the whole nation watching, though, it would have been nice if freestyle skiing moguls gold medalist Alexandre Bilodeau had joined the millions who must have used the occasion to belt out their national song.
Before winning the pairs skating gold medal with his wife Shen Xue, Zhao Hongbo was caught on camera backstage tossing a football with a friend. If not NFL caliber, his throwing motion surely would suffice in a high school game. Hmmmm. Could NFL telecasts in China be nurturing millions of Drew Breeses?
There’s long been an air of dignified tradition to Olympic awards presentations. So why are the Vancouver organizers turning them into flashy hybrid cermonies/concerts, with smoke machines, laser lights, and tickets that range from $22 to $50?
One of the best one-liners of NBC’s coverage was provided by Scott Hamilton. In commenting about the Japanese skater who became a Russian citizen in order to pursue her Olympic dream, he asked: “When did you ever hear of somebody defecting to Russia?”
To fall early on a figure-skating program has to be one of the most challenging mental hurdles to overcome at the Olympics.
Barbara Ann Scott, the 1948 Olympic figure skating champion, actually carried the torch into Canada’s House of Commons in December in what must have been a torch-relay first. When the US next hosts the Olympics, who knows, maybe the route will go through the Oval Office.