And now, before I curl into the sunset ...
We have come to the end of another International Festival of Ice People, the quadrennial gathering that celebrates the universality of all peoples so long as they're cold. It's all about striving and competing, doing your best - unless you want NBC to pay attention, in which case you'd better win and it helps to be good-looking.
Athletes from seventy-seven nations participated in the Vancouver Olympics. Twenty-six countries won medals. Nineteen of them are in Europe. It's not a level playing field - which is just as well, since a level field would make the snowboarding events really boring.
While wondering just how much money British Columbia spent on advertising time - and why they couldn't have used some of it to film a second commercial - I had a few final thoughts about the spectacle just concluded.
Please shut up about records. So the U.S. won more medals than any country in the history of the Winter Games. There were also more events than ever before, and the count goes up each year. Apolo Anton Ohno has won more medals than any other American Winter Olympian. But only two of the eight were gold, and his six individual medals (he won two in relays) involved skating somewhat similar distances: 500, 1000, or 1500 meters. Ohno trails Bonnie Blair by three gold medals despite skating in more events. I'll call him America's greatest Winter Olympian when he can win gold at distances ranging from 500 to 10,000 meters, like Eric Heiden.
Ski jumping's time has come and gone. They were once the daredevils of sport, intrepid men - no women, please - who risked life and limb by launching themselves off a ramp and soaring through the air, trying to cover the greatest distance with the cleanest landing. Carefully-placed camera angles gave the impression of a death-defying leap; in fact, the jumpers were not much more than a few feet above the sloping ground. Since we now have competitions that require twisting somersaults, 1080s, and tricks combined with racing speed, this once-glamorous event has come to look as quaint as curling.
Many event results are meaningless. Maybe not meaningless, but more random than we'd like to admit. Consider alpine ski races, decided by small fractions of a second over lengthy outdoor courses. Competitors race one at a time, and the courses change condition slightly for each run - one sunnier, another windier, a later one over fresh-fallen snow or rain. Over the whole of a World Cup season, these breaks presumably even out; in a single Olympic event, they do not. The time differences can be unimaginably small; on the New York Times website, Amanda Cox posted musical tones at the intervals of the finishers in a variety of events. Listen to the women's giant slalom, and try to discern two separate tones for the first two finishers. Not even a highly trained ear can do it. (There are small margins in events in the Summer Olympics, too, but racers there mostly compete against each other at once.)
We won. Or did we? America won the most medals. Canada won the most gold medals. Germany won more gold medals than we did. We're America. Since when is second or third place good enough? I don't recall Lance Armstrong bragging about his streak of top-three finishes, or Yankees fans boasting of how many times they've gotten to the World Series.
We're the second-most populous nation among those who won medals, more than twice as big as third-place Russia, less than a quarter the size of China. Weighted by population, we finished 14th in gold medals, 20th in medals overall. The winner, on both counts, was Norway, as it usually is. The top ten, in total medals and gold per capita:
Oh, Canada?: These were your Games indeed. As Catherine O'Hara noted in the closing ceremonies, you proved that you are not some vast frozen wasteland. When cross-country skiers are competing in short sleeves, there's more than the warmth of your welcome involved.
You set out to "Own the Podium," and you wound up winning more gold than any other country, by a comfortable margin (14-10 over Germany). You won three of the four events you absolutely, positively had to win: both hockey tournaments, and men's curling. (And came oh so close in women's curling.) Because we know you and like you and trust you, your ambition was charming to us.
Still, you may have pushed it a little too far. Raising the bar for your athletes is fine; restricting to the absolute minimum the practice access you gave foreigners was inhospitable at best, dangerous at worst. Ask yourselves this: What degree of similar treatment will seem reasonable from Russia to ensure its own success in Sochi? In 2014, "Own the Podium" may sound a lot more like "I must break you."
It Is What It Is: Primetime network television coverage here is always going to be like this. It consists of time-shifted narratives, dripping sentiment, American monofocus, and events that can be spliced to fit between commercials. The only way to stop this trend is not to watch.