Five-ring Circus

Dispatch From the Winter Games

Why snowboard cross beats old-timey Olympic sports. Plus: What actually happens at a curling practice?

This is the second of Seth Stevenson’s three dispatches from the Winter Olympics. In his first piece, Stevenson asked whether the Vancouver Games are doomed and revealed his crush on a French biathlete. 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.

American snowboard cross gold medalist Seth Wescott

Each Olympic nation issues matching puffy parkas to its athletes, coaches, and assorted hangers-on. Red and white for the Russians. Blue and yellow for the Ukrainians. Blinding orange for the Dutch. When these groups mix on the Vancouver streets, they look like schools of tropical fish meeting as they nibble at a coral reef.

Up at Cypress Mountain, an hour north of the city, you still see the puffy parkas. But you also see Afro wigs, jester hats, ultra-baggy cargo pants, and other accoutrements of the X Games crowd. It’s a slightly tweaked Olympic spirit up here as we prepare for the men’s snowboard cross finals. Rush and Led Zeppelin blare across the slopes from the outdoor speakers. A man standing next to me cracks a series of marijuana-related (and quite possibly—based on the man’s eyes, which are as red as the maple leaf on a Canadian flag—marijuana-fueled) jokes about Ross Rebagliati, the Canadian snowboarder who tested positive for weed after winning a gold medal in 1998.

“How many Canadians does it take to win a gold medal?” asks the blazed-out dude. “One—and an eighth,” he answers himself. “How do you know when Canadians win gold? Because they’re the highest people on the podium.”

I always find myself a little underwhelmed by winter sports like alpine skiing and bobsleigh in which the competitors race against the clock. There’s something not quite satisfying about that climactic moment when the crowd looks at a digital display to tell them who won the race. The beauty of snowboard cross, one of my favorite events here, is that four ‘boarders are on the course together at the same time—bumping and grinding, edging one another out of the way, looking back to see who’s gaining.

I’ve stationed myself at the end of the course, where the ‘boarders make one final jump and then rocket their way across the finish line. We’ve seen a couple of photo finishes where guys launch off the jump into the air at the same time and then hit the ground and tuck to glory. When they dig in an edge to slow down after they cross the finish line, their boards throw a thick fountain of snow into the media pit, leaving writers and photographers to brush the crystals from their faces. (The crowd only sees this one tiny slice of the race. We watch the rest on a big video-display.)

The medal heat includes defending champ Seth Wescott, his American teammate Nate Holland, a young Frenchman named Tony Ramoin, and Canadian crowd favorite Mike Robertson. Wescott is last coming out of the gate, and remains in fourth place for the whole first half of the course. When Holland leans too far forward, spins out, and loses momentum, Wescott glides by into bronze position. He passes the French dude on a turn for silver. And then, when Robertson makes the smallest of miscues—unnoticeable to the crowd, but apparently enough to slow his speed—Wescott leaps ahead by the length of a snowboard boot and never relinquishes the lead.

Asked how he was able to go from worst to first after his bad start, Wescott answers, “I just snowboarded better.” Which is fair enough. The U.S. team’s handler whisks Wescott away soon after, uttering the line that has become the “I’m going to Disney World!” of the Olympics: “OK, no more questions, we’ve gotta head to doping.”

The U.S. snowboard cross team competes in baggy fake jeans and fake flannel. Apparently, this is because Holland decided snowboarding was no place for a tight-pants “emo look.” The jeans are actually made of Gore-Tex. But I’m still calling Wescott’s win the best denim-clad sports performance since Tom Cruise’s volleyball scene in Top Gun.

Back in Vancouver, at the curling rink, the fashion statements are a little less defiant. For their epic intra-Scandinavian grudge match against Sweden, the Danish women don pleated skirts, black tights, and legwarmers, looking just a little retro. The Norwegian men have opted for crazy, red, white, and blue harlequin-pants, made by the same company that supplies golfer John Daly with his eye-assaulting trousers. (These Norwegians are the punk rockers of Olympic curling. They bring the average age of the event’s entrants down by 15 years—and bring the average hair-gel load up by at least a few ounces.)

But generally the curlers are a frumpy bunch. Most compete in black, poly-blend slacks that I’d describe as “waiter pants.” The German team could not look more like dads at a barbecue. It doesn’t help that everyone’s toting around pieces of equipment that look and function a whole lot like kitchen mops.

The great thing about curling is that it combines the collision physics of billiards, the turn-based strategy of chess, and the dopey camaraderie and dumpy body types of bowling. I realize the sport has become fodder for Simpsons episodes and lame experiential journalism. But I’ve got a genuine fondness for it. And I’ve put in my time. I feel like I’ve been living in my own personal bonspiel these past few days as I’ve attended U.S. men’s and women’s practices in the lead up to the start of competition.

American women at curling practice

I thought curling practices might involve going over situational strategy. Or perhaps the U.S. men would have a scout team mimicking the tendencies of their first opponent, Germany, by behaving in a condescending and disdainful manner as they curled. But it turned out the practices were entirely about assessing the ice conditions and the venue-provided curling stones. The teams need to know if the stones are consistent or if some behave differently than others. They need to know if the ice is heavy (meaning slow) or keen (fast). If it’s swingy (the stones curl a lot) or straight (they don’t).

Canada is the world’s curling mecca. And on this Fat Tuesday morning in the Olympic Centre, it kind of feels like a Canadian Mardi Gras. I’m pretty certain people would be drinking when the men’s matches begin at 9 a.m. if only the stadium were selling beer at that hour. As it is, the 5,000 fans in the sold-out stadium are stomping their feet, creating an appreciative rumble for the curlers. It’s a very Canadian sort of celebration: There’s a party going on at leg level, yet everyone’s upper torsos maintain a polite reserve.

No joy for the American men, who lose 7-5 to a methodical and efficient German squad. The American women look in control in their afternoon match, taking a 3-0 lead after two ends. But they let the Japanese gals hang around, and after eight ends the score is deadlocked 7-7. Japan scores one in the ninth, taking an 8-7 lead, which means it all comes down to the 10th and final end.

U.S. team “skip” Debbie McCormick looks like what I imagine Jodie Foster might look like if Jodie Foster were a curler from Madison, Wis. McCormick’s Olympic bio lists her hobbies as “scrapbooking” and “watching The Price is Right.” Now, as she lines up her final shot, she has a chance to tie the match and send it into extra ends.

McCormick sends a slow, finesse shot curving toward her target. It’s dead on and bumps aside the Japanese rock. But when the stones settle it’s impossible to tell which is closer to the bull’s-eye.

Out comes the measuring device. An official checks the radius from the bull’s-eye to the two rocks. It can’t be more than a half-inch difference, but the Japanese stone is closer. The Japanese fans roar. McCormick slumps.

Meeting with the press after the match, the American women look upbeat. And why shouldn’t they? Maybe they didn’t win, but the round robin has just begun, and their longshot medal hopes are still alive. More fundamental than that: These women are, somewhat improbably, participating in the Olympic Games. It sure beats scrapbooking.

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