Olympic Hit List, Part X

When it comes to the individual Olympic sports, I’m pretty much a traditionalist. Alpine skiing does it for me far more than snowboard stuff does. The latter, in addition to the aggressively care-less attitude of some of the competitors, strikes me as a sport that Americans invented because they weren’t dominating skiing. Sorry for the cynicism. Anyhow, the deep traditions of alpine skiing mean at least a couple of things. One, there is a history to the sport, and great competitors and brilliant events, that give greater lustre to the renewal of a relatively longstanding event. This leads inevitably to a second fact: because of this history, there is also an enormous body of young athletes and experienced coaches and a competitive system that produces greatness.

In so many of the marginal or new-kid-on-the-block sports, on the other hand, I have to wonder, “How many people actually DO this?” Can’t remember who wrote it – Stephen Brunt from the Globe and Mail is a likely candidate – but one retrospective on Canadian performances at the Sydney Olympics argued that the greatest was Kevin Sullivan’s 5th place in the 1500 metres. Given the number of possible countries and athletes vying for this elemental and prestigious track race, an Olympic top 5 is worth any number of synchronized diving medals. Not many Africans (not many anyones) have the facilities, the economic privilege, of even recreational diving.

I can’t help thinking about beach volleyball. (Warning: a severe rant warning has been posted. Too late to say “Don’t get me started!!” Sorry.) No doubt these are good players – I’ll ignore for the moment that over-the-hill Real Volleyball players can then be put out to pasture on the beach – but this should not be an Olympic sport. It exists because of partial female nudity; the men’s competition is tacked on for gender equity reasons. Because it is an Olympic Sport, we get to watch shots of (admittedly quite remarkable) upper and lower female cleavages, salacious views that would normally be intolerable during day- or prime-time viewing. It’s cheesecake. Soft porn with spiking, mud wrestling with sunglasses and some bonus athleticism.

I won’t even go into how repetitive and limited it is compared to the variety and power of the real thing, actual Volleyball. I’ve played a little beach and, though I’m a poor volleyball player, I liked it. I know how good these beach players are, and I’m sure the game makes for great off-season development. If I was a volleyball coach, all my players would be encouraged to play. I was a basketball coach, and I wanted my guys to play all the summer driveway one-on-one, all the half-court 3 on 3 in the park that they could. But that doesn’t mean I’d want Asphalt Basketball in the Olympics. The real game is already there.

Bobsleigh Silver

Well, now I’m compromised. I hate it when Canadians win at sports I don’t respect much. (See: Sydney Olympics, synchronized diving. Sheesh.) The bobsled competition reminds me of what Larry Walker said when the Rockies outfielder wasn’t Canada’s top male athlete after a National League MVP season: “I got beat by a car.” (The nominal winner was Jacques Villeneuve, whose career went south when he no longer drove that car.) It’s not quite the same situation, except that when the equipment is as important as the athletes, I just can’t get too excited. I’m irritated, too, when success looks far less interesting to the TV audience than failure does. (Take a memo, snowboard cross.) The morbid allure of catastrophe can’t be a criterion for a good and worthy sports event.

Unless they’re Canadians named Pierre Lueders and Lascelles Brown and they’re winning a silver medal. (And refusing to talk, afterwards, and to their credit, about their suspicions on the mysterious but widely alleged modifications to the gold medal German sled. Digression complete. Well, except for noting the ironic timing of the similar grumbling after the Daytona 500 was won by a car – yes, I said a car, and not Rusty or Jimmy or whoever it was at the wheel – whose chief mechanic was suspended for illegal monkeying. But I digressed again.) Lueders is a tough and competitive guy. Brown seems a pleasant fellow, too, and his story of getting his Canuck citizenship in the nick so that he could compete was a sweet one. So was Lueders’s reaction to it as he hearkened back to understand why his own immigrant parents had come to Canada and how lucky he felt as a result. Go, Canada! Go, Citizenship and Immigration Canada!

But come on. The sport is fast, it has deep roots, but when the brakeperson can make the Olympics a few months after their first run, as was the case with a couple of Canadian sleds and presumably some others, it’s somewhat discredited in my mind. Find a not-quite-good-enough track athlete or football player, and teach him or her how to push a souped-up toboggan for 5 seconds, jump in and pray. Olympia! Sorry, Pierre, and you, too, Lascelles, but bobsled doesn’t make the Howdy Olympics. If pressed to pick a sliding sport for the Big Owe, I’m surprised to be leaning toward skeleton, the crazy, X-games-ish, new kid on the adrenalin-rush block. Tradition isn’t my only criterion, apparently.

You Call THAT Olympic?

Snowboard cross. Yes, friends and neighbours, if the inclusion of snowboarding in the Olympics didn’t strike you as JunkSportFriendly enough, we get to combine it with braying hopped-up motorbikes ‘n’ mud (and, of course, roller derby) to get this goofy thing. “Boardercross” the cool kids call it. Oh, it crossed the border, all right. OUT of the Olympics, say I! It emphatically lands on the Howdy Hitlist of alleged sports to be dumped from the Summer and Winter Olympics. More on the List anon.

One good thing about “boardercross”, though: it did get me to snap the friggin’ television off. The women’s final, I decided, was something I would watch because there were, after all, two of our great Canadian girls in it, ranked one and two, Ricker and Maltais, an Anglophone and a Francophone, storybook time! Storybook, that is, if you like trainwrecks. So Maëlle Ricker goes down in a scary heap for no reason the cameras picked up. (And has at least a concussion, apparently.) Dominique Maltais goes flying through the netting. Two to go, ye smiting and petulant gods, but I’d had enough. “This is ridiculous.” Click.

This was almost as bad as an overmatched but fabulously lucky Australian somehow becoming the short-track speedskating champion in Salt Lake City. (Yes, the Steven Bradbury factor. “To Bradbury” is now in the Aussie lexicon, a verb meaning to succeed when you had no business doing so. Luckily – well, by “virtue” of being slower than his competitors – he avoided the crashes of the fast guys. I like it when “slow and steady” works in the steadfast course of a long life, but not in an Olympic race.) (Yes, and short-track speedskating is out, too. What’s next in the Summer Olympics: 400 metre hurdle races run in high school gyms? Now there’s an idea…) Anyway, back to boardercross: I flipped it off in disgust, and therefore missed the Olympifarcical sight of the (should’ve been) easy winner, the American Lindsey Jacobellis, falling flat on her hot dog buns and allowing a surprised Swiss, Tanja Frieden, to Bradbury her way to one of the silliest gold medals ever awarded.

Boardercross is too random, too made-for-TV, and the Olympic event has little enough importance to the competitors themselves that a show-off move is worth the risk of winning, and chaotic results are met with a shrug. That’s boardercross. Yes, my point, exactly. Gonzo. (And don’t come back.)