KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – On Thursday afternoon at the Olympics (which was Thursday morning in New York and last Monday in Cincinnati), I covered slopestyle skiing, a sport invented in the mid-1980s when a pair of Finns needed a way to escape from jail.
It turned out to be a wonderful event, and a compelling story; Americans swept the medals, and Joss Christensen won gold just a few months after his father died. It also got me thinking about what the Winter Olympics have become, and what the medal count really means.
As of this writing, the United States has won 12 medals. This matches the total from the entire 1980 Winter Games in Lake Placid -- and in 1980, remember speed skater Eric Heiden won five medals himself (all gold). So you can argue the U.S. is a much better Winter Olympic country now than it was in 1980. But it’s a specious argument.
Of the 12 American medals in these games, six have come in slopestyle, which is new for these Olympics. Then there was the bronze in team figure skating, which is also new for these Olympics. The U.S. also won two medals in the halfpipe, which was introduced at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, and another in moguls, which was introduced at the 1992 Olympics in Albertville.
Yes, 10 of the 12 American medals came in events that were not contested as recently as 1988. The other two: Julia Mancuso’s super-combined bronze (the super-combined was new in 2010, but it replaced the alpine combined, so I’m not counting it as new) and Erin Hamlin’s luge bronze.
Hamlin is one of the great stories of these games, since Americans are generally not a luging people, and folks in her little hometown of Remsen, N.Y., have named an ice-cream sundae after her. It’s a good thing Hamlin is an Olympic athlete because that would offend some women.
There was a time when Americans laughed at the luge as a silly non-sport featuring Germans sliding down hills on lunch trays. Now we watch luge, and it’s like watching baseball. I mean, nobody watches the Olympics any more and thinks “LOO-gie? What the hell is THAT?”
Luge is like an old friend. Sure, we may not know any lugers personally or get invited to any luge parties, but at least we understand the concept behind luge: “Go as fast as you can without crashing.” This is how many Americans approach driving, so we get it.
There are just so many new friends at the Olympics now. There were 38 medal events in 1980. Now there are 98. Most of the new events are either women’s events designed to bring some equality to the proceedings (which I endorse completely) or exotic events designed to get young people to watch the Olympics (which I also endorse completely).
Snowboard cross, slopestyle skiing and moguls are eminently watchable, and the athleticism and risks are astounding. There are moments that do not seem Olympian, by the traditional standard, like when Swedish slopestyler (slopestylist?) Henrik Harlaut competed in the kind of pajamas you would wear if you slept in an igloo. It came as no surprise to this Olympics reporter that Harlaut’s pants fell down.
Americans are generally skeptical of any sporting event determined by judges; when it comes to athletics, we are strict constructionists. Even some of the competitors here have said they don’t really understand what the judges are thinking. This is why I like the moguls: There are pretty clear reasons for good and poor scores, and so there aren’t many controversies.
Still, the newer sports are here to stay, largely because NBC funding is crucial to the Olympics, and NBC wants to televise events that Americans can win -- and that Americans want to watch. The slopestyle skiing is hard to resist because the performances are amazing.
It is easier for me to imagine being LeBron James than being Joss Christensen, the slopestyling dude who twisted and turned in the air and then landed and continued skiing backward. I took my family skiing this winter. Do you know how expert ski slopes are marked by a black diamond, and the really impossible ones have a double black diamond? I believe mine had a pink heart. So I can’t even comprehend trying what Christensen does.
All Olympic sports were new once, even the ones that seem ancient. The official Olympic website declares that “Skiing can be traced to prehistoric times from the wooden planks of various shapes and sizes found preserved in peat bogs. During this age, skis were probably needed to chase game in winter.” We don’t need skis to chase game in winter anymore, but we do need sports to chase medals. These Olympics would look insane to people from prehistoric times, by which I mean 1980.