Five-ring Circus

What To Watch at the Winter Olympics

Slate’s one-event-a-day viewer’s guide for the Vancouver Games.

Check out Slate’s complete coverage of the 2010 Winter Olympics.

Lindsey Vonn

On Friday, the 21st Winter Olympic Games—the quadrennial event that celebrates what’s commonly known as “rich people sports”—will commence in Vancouver. Although NBC Sports Chairman Dick Ebersol will be mainlining bobsled coverage 24/7, the rest of us will likely have the energy for just one event per day. Here are Slate’s suggestions for what to watch. Friday, Feb. 12: Approximately $60 million will be spent on various Olympic ceremonies over the next two weeks, with the plurality of that money going to today’s opening ceremony. Its theme is “To Inspire the World,” and the people of the world are presumably expecting some sort of lavish multimedia song-and-dance extravaganza. They will be underwhelmed to learn that the festivities primarily involve Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper delivering a speech about how inspiration is 99 percent perspiration. The Canadians are a sensible people, and I’m guessing they spent all that money on something practical like wheelchair-accessible bathrooms.

Saturday, Feb. 13: Few Olympians, past or present, are as celebrated as Michael “Eddie the Eagle” Edwards, the nearsighted British ski jumper who won fame in 1988 with his inept performance at the Calgary Olympics. “I want to be recognized as exemplifying the Olympic spirit, as one of the last true Olympians,” Edwards said recently. It’s true that recent Olympics have been lacking in athletes who inspire international derision for being bad at what they do. While today’s large-hill ski-jumping medal competition is unlikely to produce a similar cult klutz, you can get a safe laugh by rooting lustily for Germany’s Andreas Wank.

Sunday, Feb. 14: The hot ticket today will be the men’s moguls competition, but there’ll be plenty of skiing in the days to come. Instead, tune in to men’s singles luge, featuring the Italian master Armin “The Cannibal” Zöggeler, who won gold at the last two Games. Zöggeler’s nickname apparently refers to his success in competition rather than his taste for human flesh. If that’s the case, though, why is his sliding suit made of human flesh?

Monday, Feb. 15: Today is men’s snowboard cross, an “extreme” snowboarding event added to the Winter Olympics program in 2006 in an attempt to attract the X Games demographic. Protest this pandering by turning instead to men’s and women’s cross-country skiing, commonly known as “the world’s most boring activity.” The accident-prone Italian skier Pietro Piller Cottrer, however, is doing his best to disprove that stereotype. In 1998 at Nagano, he somehow got caught in a net, fell, lost his skis, and finished in 16th place. In 2001, he severed the tip of his left index finger while chopping wood. There’s at least a 40 percent chance that the Italian will somehow become trapped in a well during this year’s race. Take that, Shaun White!

Tuesday, Feb. 16: In 2006, American snowboarder Lindsey Jacobellis lost a sure gold medal by falling while attempting a showy trick near the finish line. Also failing to win gold in ‘06—or, indeed, anything—was Bode Miller, the American downhill skier whose unfortunately literal interpretation of the slogan “It’s Miller Time” earned him scorn from the effort- über-alles contingent. Both of them go today, Jacobellis in women’s snowboard cross and Miller in men’s combined downhill. While both are expected to be contenders, the real competition is which one of them will be the first to bring Bob Costas to aneurysm.

Wednesday, Feb. 17: The world’s attention will be split today between the ladies’ downhill alpine skiing medal event—featuring Lindsey Vonn’s posterior, assuming her injured shin responds favorably to  therapeutic cheese treatment—and the men’s snowboard halfpipe finals, featuring Shaun White and some guy who was apparently on Dancing With the Stars (not Apolo Anton Ohno or Steve Wozniak). If you can’t decide which superstar to watch, split the difference and watch Finland play Belarus in a preliminary hockey game, featuring Jarkko Immonen and Viktor Kostiuchenok. Yes, the Viktor Kostiuchenok.

Thursday, Feb. 18: Slamming a figure skater for being too flamboyant is sort of like criticizing Joey Chestnut for eating too many hot dogs. Still, that’s what people say about Johnny Weir, the American fashion-ice-ta known for his intricate costumes and ambiguous sexuality. On the other hand, there’s teammate Evan Lysacek, who got sick in 2006 at Torino, prompting this quote: “It’s hard because I dreamed about the Olympics for upwards of a decade. And that dream didn’t include getting sick with a stomach flu, getting stuck with IVs, having my veins collapse, and falling in the short program.” Split the difference and root for Elvis Stojko. He isn’t competing today, but at least he’s neither obnoxious nor depressing.

Friday, Feb. 19: Today is “Hey! I could do that!” day in Vancouver, as men’s and women’s skeleton takes the spotlight. Skeleton, which is basically a cooler-sounding way to say “sledding,” narrowly beat out “snowball fight” and “plowmanship” when the IOC was deciding which nonsport to add in 2006. The sport is a bit more difficult than it initially seems, though—skeleton racers can reach speeds of 80 miles per hour, and competitors train hard to become skilled at not dying. If skeleton moves too fast for you, check in on the Denmark/Canada round-robin curling match and get your fill of guys-who-look-like-someone-I-work-with action. Root for the Danish curler Ulrik Schmidt, who is 47 years old, and Canada’s Kevin “The Bear” Martin, who does sort of look like a bear, albeit one with male pattern baldness.

Saturday, Feb. 20: Everyone was thrilled when Stephen Colbert raised $300,000 for the U.S. men’s speed skating team. Everyone but Shani Davis, the Milton Bradley of speed skating, who declared Colbert a “jerk” in early December. (They did make up on Colbert’s show in January.) Davis goes today in the men’s 1,500-meter competition, and most of us will be watching on the off chance that he berates some fan who has the gall to offer him a bouquet of flowers. If drama’s not your thing, switch over to ski jumping to check in on your old pal Andreas Wank.

Sunday, Feb. 21: Today will likely be a flashpoint in the Great Tight Shirt Riots of 2010. Freestyle skiers, like those competing in today’s first-ever Olympic men’s ski cross event, generally prefer not to wear the tight-fitting race suits  favored by traditional skiers, claiming that loose-fitting garb is both more authentic and more comfortable. The New York Times characterized the dispute as “old school versus new school; Alpine versus freestyle; and function versus fashion.” You don’t know how this will all play out, but you’ll be sorely disappointed if it doesn’t end with a slalom racer getting pantsed.

Monday, Feb. 22: If you watch anything today—and maybe it’s time to take a break, honestly—you’re going to want to watch ice dancing. (No offense, men’s team sprint cross-country skiing!) Russian ice dancers Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin recently decided to scrap the cartoonish loin-cloth-and-body-paint Aborigine costumes they planned to use in their routine, after observers pointed out that real Aborigines do not resemble ineptly camouflaged gingerbread men. Despite this setback, Domnina and Shabalin remain the favorites in the event. The world is breathlessly anticipating their replacement theme, reportedly an homage to the Montgomery Bus Boycott choreographed to Outkast’s “Rosa Parks.”

Tuesday, Feb. 23: The women’s biathlon relay event is today, and, as usual, the American team is expected to fall shortin this traditionally European-dominated event that combines cross-country skiing with target shooting. You’re not sure why Americans would be so consistently dismal at a sport that rewards proficiency with firearms, but it’s a pretty safe bet that you can blame it on the Democrats.

Wednesday, Feb. 24: Like most people, your familiarity with bobsledding probably begins and ends with Cool Runnings, the 1993 film about the Jamaican bobsled team. While the story of the first Irish female bobsled team, scheduled to compete today in the two-woman bobsled, has been at times a dramatic one, in the end it will likely not prove as cinematic. Still, that shouldn’t stop you from insisting that Doug E. Doug is a natural to play Aoife Hoey. Also, Marjan Kalhor, Iran’s first female Winter Olympian, takes the slopes in the women’s giant slalom today. She plans to maintain Islamic dress in the Olympic Village, although not on the slopes—but that’s OK, because a ski suit covers your entire body, too. So does this mean that ski-racing suits could replace the chador in Islamic countries? And what does this mean for the Tight Shirt Riots?

Thursday, Feb. 25: Today is the only event that most people actually care about: ladies’ singles figure skating. South Korea’s Yu-na Kim and Japan’s Mao Asada are favored to medal, but keep an eye out for Miki Ando, the lone female skater to land a quadruple jump in competition. I would also keep an eye out for Mickey Ando, who sounds like an unscrupulous gambler, and who is probably looking for ways to throw the competition, if he exists.

Friday, Feb. 26: Today’s your last chance to see America’s sweetheart, speed skater Apolo Anton Ohno. The Torino gold medalist competes in the 500 meters and the 5,000-meter relay today. That doesn’t mean that it’s your last chance to unload all the “Showtime at the Apolo” T-shirts you printed up, though: He’ll probably show up on Celebrity Apprentice soon. If worse comes to worst, you can always hawk them outside the Apollo Theater and hope that nobody notices the misspelling.

Saturday, Feb. 27: The men’s slalom event is ground zero for Vancouver’s “just happy to be here” contingent. Keep your eyes out for competitors like Morocco’s Samir Azzimani, Pakistan’s Muhammad Abbas (no relation to the president of Palestine), Ghana’s Kwame “The Snow Leopard” Nkrumah-Acheampong, Senegal’s Leyti Seck (“If I am being honest, there is no real chance for me to win a medal”), and the 51-year-old Mexican skier and society rake Prince Hubertus of Hohenlohe-Langenburg. (Do yourself a favor and click that link.) A nephew of Diane von Fürstenberg who doubles as both a commercial photographer and a pop singer named Andy Himalaya, Prince Hubertus writes on his Web site about the importance of “finding your own identity in a world where so many images are created to impose products, brands, and lifestyles.” He presumably explores this theme at greater length in his 2002 album Shopping Bags and Religion.

Sunday, Feb. 28: The Olympics close out with the men’s hockey gold medal game, which will likely come down to Canada and Russia. It would be nice, and fitting, if the Canadians won today—after all, they essentially invented the sport. Plus, if they lose then the $118 million that our neighbors to the north have spent in an effort to win the medal count will have been a massive waste. Then again, maybe they spent all that money on wheelchair-accessible bathrooms.