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Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014

2014 Winter Olympics: On With The Show

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It's time again for the Olympics, an extravaganza of commercials for corporate “partners” with interludes of athletic competition. At the Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, NBC and its branches will regale us with stories of the athletes' courage, determination and sacrifice. There will be the usual thrills of victory and agonies of defeat—many of them tape-delayed so the top sponsors can grab us in prime time. And if we're lucky we'll see almost nothing of the cruel and creepy Vladimir Putin.

 

Artie: I view the Winter Games pretty much like I view soccer, which should tell you plenty. So many of the sports are just weird to me, and then NBC will be foisting all these heartwarming tales on us. Have your hankies ready!

Frank: I would boycott if I thought it would embarrass Putin, the most detestable Olympic host since ol' Adolf back in '36 in Berlin.

A: Putin should be embarrassed by that anti-gay legislation he got rubber-stamped last year.

F: In that regard, maybe the highlight of the Games will come from the Dutch brass band that entertains at the speedskating venue. They say they might add “Y.M.C.A.” to their repertoire as a response to Putin.

A: Excellent! They could change the lyrics to “U-S-S-R!” And maybe the Dutch skaters could dress as the Village People, just to twist the knife.

F: The Norwegian men's curling team might be up for that. Four years ago they evoked the '70s by competing in slacks with a wild diamond pattern in red, white and blue. This time they're going with zig-zags.

A: Now that I'd like to see!

F: As you know, I'm an Olympic curling super-fan. But most of that competition won't make prime time, which NBC will use for the top U.S. skaters, skiers and daredevils.

A: Such as?

F: There's Shani Davis, a speedskater who's trying to become the first man to win gold in the same event for a third straight Olympics. Besides that race, the 1,000 meters, he's got a good shot at upgrading from two straight silvers to gold in the 1,500.

A: Seems like I actually remember his name.

F: In '06 at Turin he became the first black athlete to win an individual gold in a Winter Games.

A: OK, give me another name I might know.

F: Shaun White, the freestyle snowboarder known as “The Flying Tomato.”

A: A guy with wild red hair doing all sorts of crazy stunts?

F: That's him, but he has a radical new look. Gone is the Arlo Guthrie cascade; he got shorn last year for the Locks of Love program and now he looks like a Wall Street lawyer.

A: But he's still crazy enough to do all that fllippin' and flyin'.

F: There's no doubt these freestyle boarders and skiers are terrific athletes with tons of courage. But those events have too much Evel Knievel in them for my taste.

A: But then you and I are definitely not the demographic NBC is after in those events. No Viagra ads in those time slots!

F: Then there's a big name who'll be at Sochi but not with everyone's approval: Lolo Jones.

A: Now I'm drawing a complete blank.

F: Really? She's crossing over from the Summer Games. In 2008 she was about to win the 100-meter hurdles but tripped and finished seventh. Then she finished fourth in 2012.

A: So how'd she winterize herself?

F: In bobsledding, where sprinting is crucial to a good start.

A: Didn't Herschel Walker do that?

F: Yup, the football star finished seventh in the two-man bobsled in 1992. Anyway, Jones had some success on the international circuit and was picked for the Olympics along with another former sprinter, Lauryn Williams.

A: So what's the problem?

F: Jones seems to attract resentment because she is, well, gorgeous. There are those who feel she unfairly benefits from that.

A: Another Anna Kournikova?

F: Well, Jones has had more success than Kournikova ever did in tennis. She did get within a few yards of Olympic gold. But her beauty makes her a big commercial “brand,” and she's done modeling in ads that involved, um, minimal clothing.

A: So what? If ya got it, flaunt it.

F: That hasn't always gone over well. At the London Games the two American hurdlers who did win medals made some pointed comments about being overlooked. And at least one woman who didn't make the bobsled team was critical.

A: Wake up and smell the money! The Olympics ain't just athletics; it's also a TV show that needs good-looking stars.

F: One columnist, Selena Roberts, suggested that NBC influenced Jones' selection. NBC called that “preposterous,” but I'll bet the executives were pleased that Lolo will be around for more closeups.

A: Let's take this to the next level in 2018. Put Carrie Underwood in a bobsled and wire her so she can sing during each run.

F: With a few screams of terror interspersed.

A: Why not? It'll be great TV!

 

A BIG-NAME ABSENCE

F: One reason NBC is probably happy about Jones' presence is that another glamour girl, Lindsey Vonn, won't be competing because of injury.

A: I guess I've heard the name, but I was thinking she was a golfer or maybe a beach volleyball player.

F: Nope, she was a gold-medal skier at the 2010 Winter Games. But she crashed and wrecked a knee last year, and despite an intensive rehab she said she just wasn't fit enough to compete.

A: And besides her athletic skill she's got looks to match Lolo?

F: Classic blond, though I don't find her very appealing. She seems a little like Lance Armstrong, with a “hard” kind of look that makes me think she's not someone you'd want to cross. NBC will still be putting her on screen as an analyst, but from a studio in New York.

A: Smart move. Why get anywhere near the danger zone if you don't have to?

F: One benefit of Vonn's absence from Sochi is that we won't have to see a hundred shots of her boyfriend, Tiger Woods, waiting for her at the bottom of the ski run.

A: But that would have been so appropriate, since for the last few years it's been all downhill for Tiger.

 

OH NO, HIM TOO?

F: Someone else whose talent and looks have been marketed for almost a decade won't be competing at Sochi: Apolo Anton Ohno.

A: Some kind of skater, ain'a?

F: Very good! He's the short-track guy with the bandanna who won eight medals—the most ever for a U.S. Winter athlete—over the last three Games. He reappeared in sandwich commercials recently and I assumed he was gearing up for Sochi, but it turns out he retired.

A: He might think he had nothing else to achieve, but for me a skater isn't a complete success until he or she lands a role in Disney on Ice.

F: I doubt that's in Apolo's plans. But in a way just surviving his sport is quite a feat. The short-track races always remind me of greyhound racing...

A: You mean they chase a mechanical rabbit around the arena?

F: Um, no, but quite often when the racers go into the turns they wind up piling into each other, just like the dogs, and sliding into the sideboards. Races often are decided by disqualifications for interference; in fact, I'm pretty sure Ohno won and lost a medal or two because of judges' rulings.

 

IT FIGURES: A LITTLE DRAMA

A: I know figure skating always gets some of the biggest TV ratings. How do you think Dick Button will do this year?

F: Um, Dick won his second and last gold medal in '52, and at the age of 84 I think his training has eased off. But as usual there's some drama to the women's competition as far as Americans are concerned,

A: Another kneecapping?

F: Hardly, although this is the 20th anniversary of the Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan craziness. No, this drama involves the question of whether the most prominent U.S. skater deserves to be in Sochi.

A: Details...

F: The skater is Ashley Wagner...

A: An Ashley, of course.

F: She won the national title in 2012 and '13. At this year's U.S. Championships she took a couple of tumbles and finished fourth, but the national federation placed her on the three-woman Olympic team and bumped the third-place finisher.

A: But if you're not in the top three of your own country...

F: The decision wasn't against the rules; the federation decided that Wagner's past success made her a better bet for Sochi. But she also had done poorly at an international event in December. There's at least a whiff of suspicion that she got the nod because she's a “name” in the sport, and therefore a better “product” commercially. And after all, the women's figure skating always grabs huge TV ratings.

A: What? Money playing into the Olympics?

F: Anyway, Wagner has added to the drama by deciding to change her “free skate” program in the weeks leading up to the Games. She's switching her music from Romeo and Juliet back to Samson and Delilah, which she used in winning her U.S. titles. “I just couldn't connect with the Juliet character; the program made me nervous,” she said.

A: And why not? We all know what happens to Juliet at the end of the play. But I think that given her shaky season, she'd do better by skating to music from an Alfred Hitchcock movie...

F: Not, I hope, the scary strings from Psycho.

A: Nope, the song from The Man Who Knew Too Much—the soothing voice of Doris Day telling her, “Que Sera, Sera, whatever will be, will be.” It's a nice tune and good psychology to boot.

 

THE BEST AT THEIR GAME

F: One great thing about the Olympics is that there's plenty of hockey to watch—and I mean the best kind of hockey.

A: Which is?

F: NHL players but without most of the “goon factor” that fills the regular season. In other words, it's like post-season hockey. Because the games actually mean something there's all-out effort but almost none of the brawling.

A: But what I want to see is the brawling! Goon-less hockey doesn't qualify as good hockey for me.

F: Well, this time you might want to watch the women's competition. The Americans and Canadians have dominated the Olympics since women's hockey began in 1998, and in December when they played an exhibition series they duked it out big-time in two games.

A: All right! Good to know the women's game has attained equal status pugilistically.

F: But you still might want to watch some men's games just for the joy of hearing Mike Emrick do the play-by-play. As I've said before, I think he knows and describes his game better than anyone else in any other sport.

A: That I can agree with.

F: And while we're talking on the subject of media coverage, for us in Milwaukee the Olympics means another chance to enjoy two weeks of great reporting and writing by the Journal Sentinel's Gary D'Amato. I worked with Gary for about 20 years and I've always maintained that he is not only the best sportswriter at the paper, but simply the best writer, period.

A: Again, no argument.

 

CURL UP AND ENJOY

F: And now, back to the competition I grew to love in the last couple of Winter Games—curling!

A: In other words, lawn bowling on ice.

F: So maybe it really can't be called a sport, but it's intricate, filled with ever-changing tactics, and talk about a game of inches! Sometimes you want to hit the other team's “stone,” sometimes you want to hit your own, sometimes both. It's a fabulous chess match.

A: And very conducive to napping.

F: Not the least of its virtues! So you nod off for a bit; it's not like the matches are over in 15 minutes. And whenever you wake up there'll be another bit of strategy unfolding.

A: If another polar vortex drops in, we can all ride it out watching the curlers.

F: I wouldn't be surprised if NBC is trying to arrange that kind of weather to benefit all its programming.

A: I will admit curling has one virtue. It's something we can watch without worrying about whether someone's going to blow out a knee or get concussed.

F: They're very good at staying upright on the ice; they have special shoes. About the biggest risk is to the vocal chords because the person who slides the stone is always yelling to the sweepers about how to use their brooms.

A: I guess I'll try to watch at least a little, if only to get a look at those snazzy Norwegian pants.

F: When I saw photos I said, “Hey, those are just like the eye-popping bell-bottoms we thought were so cool in the '70s.”

A: Jeez, does Czechoslovakia have a team? Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd could compete as those brothers from “Saturday Night Live.”

F: Alas, neither the Czech Republic nor Slovakia qualified for Sochi.

 

DARING KNOWS NO GENDER

F: One new feature in this Olympics is that there will finally be women's competition in ski jumping.

A: Why'd that take so long? Women should be allowed to be as insane as men in flying off a mountain.

F: Although the women will jump only off the smaller of two hills being used, the so-called “normal” hill.

A: Since when is ski jumping normal behavior?

 

THINKING AHEAD...

A: Two events I'd be interested in are snowball fighting and “king of the hill.” Those I could sink my teeth into!

F: Good thinking. Not many of us have skied 80 miles per hour or jumped off a mountain...

A: Or worked up an ice skating program.

F: But we've all chucked snowballs and wrestled in the snow.

A: So let's have some events for the Common Joe!

 

AND YES, SOME SENTIMENT

F: One U.S. athlete I'll really be pulling for is Lanny Barnes in the women's biathlon. Her story is one of the best at the Games.

A: Biathlon, isn't that something that happens at the bottom of the ocean?

F: Um, I think you have it mixed up with something else.

A: What's the thing people ride down to the sea floor?

F: That's a bathysphere, or diving bell.

A: And what's biathlon?

F: That's the sport that mixes cross-country skiing and rifle shooting.

A: Must have been the top event at the 1944 Games.

F: Those didn't happen; instead there were events like the Battle of the Bulge. Biathlon actually is one of the more interesting winter sports because, as the name implies, it's a double challenge. You have to bust your butt in the skiing because your time is a factor, but when you get to a set of targets you have to somehow calm your body down enough to hit some pretty small targets.

A: So there's no Winter Olympic events that are under water?

F: Might be tough to get back up through the ice.

A: Well, see, there's the competition part.

F: But we digress... Lanny Barnes, a Coloradan, has competed in three previous Olympics. But she was ill during the trials and finished fourth, just behind her twin sister Tracy, who had just missed qualifying for the 2010 Games.

A: So you mean you'll be rooting for Tracy.

F: Nope, because she gave up her spot on the team so Lanny could go. Tracy said Lanny deserved it because she had a better season overall, and besides, “If you care enough about a person you will make any sacrifice for them.” Lanny had this to say: “She is my hero and this only shows true selflessness and the Olympic spirit.”

A: Wow. Mighty impressive.

F: As much as we joke about the hearts-and-flowers aspect of NBC's coverage, there will be lots of stories that make us appreciate the best qualities of people. Even if we have to wade through commercials to find them.

 

Frank Clines covered sports for The Milwaukee Journal and the Journal Sentinel. Art Kumbalek is an excellent curler, if you count the fetal position.