Check out Slate’s complete coverage of the 2010 Winter Olympics.
When the 2010 Winter Olympics kick off on Friday, fans can look forward to two weeks of skiing, skating, and northern Europeans. In 2001, David Plotz called the quadrennial event an “embarrassment to sports” and outlined his reasons for a complete American withdrawal from the Winter Games. His original article is reprinted below.
In 1980, after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, the United States boycotted the Moscow Summer Olympics. Afghanistan has been invaded again. The United States should seize the opportunity and boycott our own Salt Lake Winter Olympics in February.
The Winter Games, after all, are an embarrassment to sports in general and to the United States in particular. Why should we bother with an event that has managed to produce only a single compelling moment in 76 years? (The U.S. hockey team’s defeat of the Soviet Union in 1980—the “Miracle on Ice.” The miracle was that something interesting happened.)
There are several wrong reasons to abandon Salt Lake City. Some idealists object to the Games because they’re morally tarnished. The slugs on the Salt Lake Organizing Committee dispensed $1 million in payoffs to the fascist symps, avaricious Third World functionaries, and inbred royals who comprise the International Olympic Committee, bribing them with college tuition for their kids, Wal-Mart shopping sprees, free prescription drugs—everything but the kitchen sink (though they did pony up for other furniture). Even so, the Olympic bidding is always a sewer, and Salt Lake’s behavior was not much worse than that of competing cities.
Nor should we abstain simply because the Olympiad is being held in the wasteland of Salt Lake City. That fun-free zone is not significantly more tedious than Nagano or Lillehammer or the other icy gulags where Winter Olympics take place.
No, the Winter Olympics must die because its sports—and I use that term loosely—range from the merely dull to the unendurable. The marquee event is figure skating: Ice Capades with awful classical music and worse costumes. Nothing can be called a sport that depends on the whimsy of “artistic impression” and the opinions of nine judges. (Believe me, the Supreme Court makes better theater.) Downhill skiing, snowboarding, luge, bobsled: These are gravity, not sport. Suggestion for improving biathlon, that soporific merger of cross-country skiing and riflery: Make them shoot at each other. Hockey is the only Winter Games event in which competitors make physical contact, in which they play defense, in which they have to think. Not coincidentally, it is the only Winter Games event worth watching. Sports drama depends on human interaction: Winter Olympians interact with a clock.
Some of the events defy explanation. Curling combines the worst of shuffleboard and housekeeping. The contestants use brooms to sweep a path on the ice for a sliding stone. According to The Complete Book of the Winter Olympics, 94 percent of curlers are Canadian. Enough said. The Salt Lake games are reviving an old sport called “skeleton.” Sounds exciting, doesn’t it? Like some exceptionally dangerous extreme sport? Skeleton is sledding. They are giving a gold medal for sledding.
The winter Olympic events are not merely bad sports, they are bad television. Even the activities that are thrilling when you do them yourself—alpine skiing, snowboarding—wilt on television. The Olympic downhill is hours of waiting, punctuated by moments of incomprehensible blur (zip, shoosh, zip, shoosh, game over). Most of the events play so poorly on the air that NBC doesn’t bother to cover them. The Winter Games broadcast—even more than the summer one—is a traffic jam of lachrymose up-close-and-personal profiles: the Norwegian cross-country skier whose mother just died of cancer, the Italian bobsledder who survived a scary gondola accident, the courageous Finnish biathlete who struggles every day with the trauma of a vestigial third nipple.
(Sept. 11 promises to concentrate this sap to unimaginable sticky-sweetness. They are already lining up their terror sob stories, though the roster does not impress so far. The best the official Olympic Web site can manage is a coach who serves in the Reserves and a skeleton slider—should that be “skeletor”?—who drove some supplies to Ground Zero.)
The United States should boycott the Winter Games for a selfish reason as well: We’re no good at these so-called sports. It’s humiliating to celebrate an eighth-place finish in the luge. It’s un-American to place eighth in anything. Are our boys fighting in Tora Bora so that we can finish eighth? If we’re not pulling gold medals, we’re letting Osama win. Why are the Summer Games so much fun? Because we rule them.
We should also quit so we don’t have to pay attention to the dreary teams that do dominate the games. The countries that have won the most winter medals—besides the fourth-place United States—are Russia, Germany, Norway, Austria, Finland, Sweden, and Switzerland—not a one you’d want to spend the afternoon with. Their Olympic heroes are instantly forgettable. Who remembers Matti Nykanen? Bjorn Dahlie? The Protopopovs?
The Summer Olympics allow underdog nations to sneak a few medals: a gold for Senegal here, a few for Thailand there, a fluky bronze for Guatemala. But the Winter Games are just one more opportunity for the overdogs—as if they need another—to lord it over the poor, the dark, the Southern. (The Winter Olympics did not have a black competitor until 1976 or a black medal-winner till 1988.) Small-time countries never win anything at the Winter Games.
The Cold War used to coat the Winter Games with at least a veneer of drama: the Manichean face-off between us and the Commie ice devils. Now that’s vanished. What’s the joy in playing Estonia? The closest the official Olympic site can get to national conflict is: “Cross-Country: Norway vs. Italy a Heated Rivalry.” By Winter Olympic standards, I suppose it is.
The Salt Lake Organizing Committee, in one of its sole acts of wisdom, is keeping the slopes at Park City and other Olympic ski areas open to the public during the Games. While the Olympians hurtle down the black-diamond slopes, regular folks will be allowed to ski other trails on the mountain. If the United States doesn’t boycott the games, here is how you can still protest. Let other suckers fork over 100 bucks for the chance to shiver in a grandstand while rockets on skis blur by at 80 mph. You should travel to Utah, skip the games, buy a lift ticket, and spend the day snowboarding the slopes next door. The only Winter Games worth paying attention to are your own.
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