Five-ring Circus

Dispatch From the Winter Games

Are the Vancouver Olympics doomed?

This is the first of Seth Stevenson’s three dispatches from the Winter Olympics. In his second piece, he explains why he loves snowboard cross and finds out what actually happens at a curling practice. In his third dispatch, Stevenson compares Shaun White to a Cuban cigar or a glass of vintage Dom Pérignon. Check out Slate’s complete coverage of the 2010 Winter Olympics.

On Friday, I made my way through the drizzly half-light of a Vancouver morning to the main Olympic media center. Moments after I entered, the press room’s massive TV displays flashed the first footage of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili’s training run. He spiraled off the track into a support pole at high speed, his body sickeningly limp as he hit the ground. Hundreds of clickety-clicking laptop keyboards in the media center fell suddenly silent.

Not long after, IOC president Jacques Rogge took the podium for a previously scheduled press conference. Rogge announced that the luger had died from his injuries and then opened the floor to questions. The first three were about whether the luge track was too dangerous and whether other lugers had threatened to quit the competition. “I’m sorry,” said Rogge, shutting the event down after just a few minutes, “but this is a time for sorrow, not a time to look for reasons.”

Let’s say you did want to look for reasons. You needn’t look far. Anyone who saw Dale Earnhardt die when his car hit the wall at the 2001 Daytona 500 knows the human body cannot survive sudden, dramatic deceleration. If Kumaritashvili had flown off his sled, bounced off the sidewall, and tumbled down the track, he might have come away injured but still alive. Instead, he flew over a wall and into a metal beam. I simply can’t fathom why that wall wasn’t built higher. Nor can I understand the IOC’s callous effort to blame the death on an inexperienced luger instead of a poorly designed track. Even two-time gold medalist Armin Zöggeler lost control and crashed here during a training run.

Totem poles at the opening ceremony

The specter of death, before the Games had even begun, cast a pall over the opening ceremony. And then tragedy turned to farce. The long, knobby totem poles that rose out of the arena floor—celebrating British Columbia’s native peoples—looked more like sex toys than indigenous sculptures. When one failed to deploy for the big torch-lighting moment, it appeared to be suffering from erectile dysfunction.

Torchbearer Wayne Gretzky assessed the situation out of the corner of his eye, trying not to let the fiasco register on his face. Later, as he stood in the open bed of a pickup truck, carrying a lit torch through city streets, the terrified Gretzky was mobbed by drunken revelers emerging from pubs. Rumor here holds that his driver took a wrong turn and lost their security detail. “Well, of course people are gonna go crazy when they see old Wayner rolling by with a torch in his hand,” said my Vancouverite pal Tim as we watched the CTV replay over pints.

The weather, too, contributed to the Games’ inauspicious start. Saturday morning dawned murky and gray. At 50 degrees, it’s too warm to feel wintry, and yet it’s bitingly cold when the damp wind hits your face.

I caught the two-hour shuttle bus up to Whistler with other media members. Raindrops tapped on the roof and at the windows. As I murmured with seatmates about the luge accident and the IOC’s response, I found myself wondering whether these games were doomed. No one seems to care about the older winter sports anymore. NBC is losing loads of money on the broadcast. Spacing out the Summer Olympics and the Winter Games so they happen every two years has made the arrival of each Olympiad less rare and thus less special.

And then the shuttle bus pulled into Whistler Olympic Park and all at once I remembered why I’m here. I’m here to watch sports. A smorgasbord of world-class sports. What’s better than that?

I stopped feeling jaded from the moment we approached the ski jump and I spotted a tiny dot sliding down a huge ramp. The dot separated from the end of the ramp and floated out over the mountain. Floated and floated, and each time I thought that surely it must come down it just kept on floating. I’ve watched ski jumps on TV, but the footage somehow doesn’t capture the utter defiance of physics taking place. Put it this way: I involuntarily held my breath for the duration of each ski jump I witnessed in person. I do not hold my breath when I watch a ski jump on TV.

I next moved to the biathlon track to catch the women’s 7.50-kilometer sprint, taking up a spot between the track and the rifle range. In this event, the women cross-country ski through the evergreen woods, then enter the stadium to fire five rounds at a tiny target 50 meters away, and then get back on the forest loop to do it again. For each missed shot, they ski a penalty loop inside the stadium. When all this is over, the top two racers will finish within 1.5 seconds of each other.

The skis and poles elongating their limbs make the female biathletes look nine feet tall. If that weren’t intimidating enough, they also have enormous rifles strapped to their backs. When they reach the target range, the women sling the firearms around and squint into the barrel-mounted sights. Some stand to shoot, hips cocked, torsos heaving from exertion. Others drop to a prone position, spandexed legs splayed far apart. I am generally loath to treat female athletes as sexual objects, but I must admit I found this whole scene vaguely erotic.

French biathlete Marie Dorin

By the time the post-event press conference rolled around, I’d developed a profound and complex crush on French bronze medalist Marie Dorin. She’d hopped up and down, laughing, when she ascended the medal podium. Her golden hair poked out in shocks from beneath her ski hat, and her dimples flashed. According to her Olympic bio, her favorite hobby is riding horses in the French countryside. When I imagine myself riding along next to her, she has her rifle tucked into her saddlebag.

Back in Vancouver (my day involved seven hours of bus transportation, including all the various shuttles around the Whistler mountaintop), I arrived at the Pacific Coliseum just in time for the night’s last two short-track speed skating events. First came the women’s relay—an insane scrum of 16 skaters on the ice all at once, in which teammates give each other an accelerating push, roller derby-style. Then the main event: the men’s 1,500-meter final. The Korean skaters were the favorites, but the crowd was rooting fiercely for the Americans.

Though it’s a sport in which athletes routinely send each other hurtling into walls, there is a gentle elegance to short-track. The skaters glide with their hands clasped politely behind their backs. Executing a pass involves a little two-step hop worthy of Fred Astaire in his prime.

Men’s short-track speed skating

As with ski jumping, short track’s true appeal can’t be captured on TV. There’s little advantage to watching close-ups instead of seeing the whole track at once. (The loop is small and the crowd sits close to it.) More important, you have to be here to understand the interplay between the audience and the skaters. A rumble built in the stands each time Apolo Anton Ohno swooped in for a pass. He got closer and closer with each successive turn and almost seemed to feed off the cresting noise. When the pass finally happened, a roar exploded from the rafters—so loud it must have bounced off the ice into the skaters’ ears.

Ohno eventually got repassed, and it appeared the Koreans owned the podium. But then the third-place Korean tried to pass the second-place Korean for silver. Their skates got tangled, and both men flew off the track in a heap. Was this the greatest instance of Olympic hubris since Lindsay Jacobellis celebrated too early and squandered her gold in snowboard cross? Ohno and American J.R. Celski didn’t care. They took silver and bronze, pumping their fists in triumph.

Sunday morning, I headed out to the curling rink to watch the U.S. men practice. On my way to the Skytrain station, the sun peeked through the clouds for the first time since I landed in Vancouver. And I thought to myself: Let the games begin.Become a fan of  Slate  on Facebook. Follow us on  Twitter.