SBJ/February 4 - 10, 2002/Opinion

Too much Winter Games, too little sport

When it comes to the Summer Olympics, I'm a Big Tent guy, all the way. By that I mean I want the Games to open themselves to many more sports than they now admit. My reasoning is simple: If a substantial number of people anywhere enjoy a game, it shouldn't be kept off the world's grandest stage by the self-appointed fogies who make the Olympic rules.

So let's let 'em all in — golf, racquetball, squash, handball (three and four walls), polo, cricket, bowling, lawn bowling, boccie, petanque, chess, checkers, croquet, shuffleboard, pool, billiards, snooker, orienteering, underwater hockey, rock climbing, rugby, lacrosse, football (American, Australian and Gaelic) and that game the Afghans play with a goat's carcass. I'll leave a blank space here        for you to insert any I've omitted.

Still, I'm forced to re-examine my position quadrennially, when the Winter Olympics come around. That fest, which commences again on Friday, contains about as weird a bunch of sports as you'll ever see. Whoever thought up some of them wouldn't get half way through the drug tests.

For starters, they ought to call the thing the Fasten-Your-Chin-Straps Games for all the daredevil stuff they contain. Some people object on safety grounds to the inclusion in the Summer Games of such combat sports as boxing and judo, but nothing that takes place in a ring can match the destructive force of the 70 mph wipeouts of the alpine skiing events. The contestants in those put in more hospital time than the cast of "ER."

The same goes for the activities staged on ice-coated chutes. One of them — bobsledding — is something almost nobody does for fun, partly because of the expense (a good two-man sled goes for about $35,000, a four-man version about $50,000) and partly because there are only 12 places to do it in the world. Bobsledding's closest real-life parallel is an amusement-park ride, and no one proposes giving medals for that.

Luge sends racers zooming around the chute toes first on sleds lacking the bobsled's protective shell. Skeleton sledding, a new event, sends 'em down nose first, also sans protection. The plastic surgeons must have demanded equal time with the orthopedists.

To flesh out the schedule so it can have three weekends to sell to television, the Winter Games are full of odd, cobbled-together events. One such is biathlon, a combination of cross-country skiing and rifle shooting that resembles nothing so much as the Russo-Finnish War. Another is Nordic Combined, which mixes cross-country skiing and ski jumping. The jumping comes first, often reducing the field in the next day's race.

Even perfectly good sports come out of the Winter Olympics' meat grinder looking misshapen. The commonsensical way to run a speedskating race is to clear a frozen lake, line up the skaters, shoot off a gun and see who crosses the finish line first. That doesn't please the guardians of Olympia, so under the dubious banner of fairness they've decreed the construction of costly, outsized indoor rinks and matched the skaters in the so-called metric events in a pairs-against-the-clock format whose lane-changing rules defy explanation.

Most of the other Winter Games races pit individuals singly against the clock instead of against each other. Like the skating, their drama centers more on the ticking numbers in the corner of your TV screen than on the travails of the athletes. Competitively satisfying, it ain't.

And what can you say about figure skating, the Games' U.S. prime-time television centerpiece? If it's a sport, so is ballet. I must confess, however, that I think it's a good show. Who can resist the contestants' dazzling smiles, radical hairdos and sequined costumes? And those are just the men!

Frederick C. Klein is a columnist for SportsBusiness Journal.

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