Friday, February 12, 2010

The Thrill of Victory, the Agony of... Death

Back in the 1970s, my brother used to joke about new Olympic winter sports he thought would be more interesting than watching Nordic skiers tramping for miles. "Have a speed skater cling to the back of a bobsled," he suggested. "Send a bobsled down a slalom course. Have ski-jumpers try it on figure skates. How about a four-man luge?"

Who knew it would practically come to this? With the death of a luger today, and stories in the New York Times about the increasing degree of danger that's been built in to many of Vancouver's tracks and courses, I'm not sure I'll have the stomach to watch most of the Olympic sports this year — the odds are too high for serious injuries and even death.

The Winter Games have been redesigned to appeal to a thrill-seeking generation. Sportsmanship seems to have gone out the window in hopes of a bigger audience and more advertising revenue, I guess. Athletes used to be expected to do their best under normal winter conditions, not gamble with their lives on souped-up, super-icy tracks. But that's boring to a lot of people. And as a result, a considerable number of the top hopes for this Olympics have already been sidelined by injuries. I think it's time the Olympic motto, "Swifter, higher, stronger" was changed, too.

How about "Riskier! — scarier!! — head injuries!!!"?

Violence is to be expected with hockey. Not with the luge. Watching the luge competition used to be a few steps up from watching paint dry. But that was okay because of the silly helmets and the periodic, harmless tumble that sent the lugers sliding to the finish line in embarrassment. No more. There are even a couple of new sports designed, I believe, with hopes of horrific collisions by athletes competing simultaneously — skicross and snowboardcross. Even my evil brother didn't imagine those.

Dick Button used to be the worst thing about figure skating. But the sport is increasingly about executing difficult jumps at the expense of creativity, grace, and artistic choreography. Gymnastics on ice, with music? Who cares to watch all that boring preparatory travel across the rink between the big jumps? I browse through magazines, making catty, Buttonesque remarks until someone with an old-fashioned sense of musical interpretation comes along. Maybe they'll make two skaters perform their routines simultanously in hopes of a collision. Remember Oksana Baiul in 1994?

That old chestnut, ice dancing, is looking increasingly attractive to me these days because no one gets thrown around and I can focus on style and precision instead of holding my breath for the requisite triple throw and triple jump. (I was a kid who breathlessly watched the school figure competitions, back when they were compulsory and televised.) Even pairs routines can turn bloody, although it's rare.

To quote today's Times story about the deceased luger:
Training days in Whistler have been crash-filled. A Romanian woman was briefly knocked unconscious and at least four Americans — Chris Mazdzer on Wednesday, Megan Sweeney on Thursday and Tony Benshoof and Bengt Walden on Friday — have had serious trouble just getting down the track. 
“I think they are pushing it a little too much,” Hannah Campbell-Pegg of Australia said Thursday night after she nearly lost control in training. “To what extent are we just little lemmings that they just throw down a track and we’re crash-test dummies? I mean, this is our lives.”
I was hoping to cheer for these athletes, not fear for their lives.

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