Along among thebig-money Athletic Spectacles of our time—Super Bowls, heavyweight titlerights, World Series, NBA Finals, Stanley Cups, Wimbledons, Masters, FinalFours, Summer Olympics—the Winter Games are charmed in that they actually liveup to the hype. More than that, they always seem able to lift our spirits insome larger, communal way. Unlike the Summer Olympics, which have been cursedby steroids, nationalism, terrorism and political boycotts, the Winter Gamesare peaceful, and it doesn't matter how many medals one's nation of choicewins. Something happens that will warm the most jaded heart. It will happenagain in Albertville. Guaranteed. The Winter Olympics are the perfect antidoteto winter itself.
I've oftenwondered what it is that gives the Winter Games that joyful air. Maybe it's thewinter sports themselves. They are games, not epic struggles but contests ofspeed and finesse that are inherently pleasurable. There is no grunting in theWinter Olympics. No tough guys trying to hurt other tough guys. Skating,downhill skiing, ice hockey, sliding on a sled—these are activities thatchildren do for fun. The athletes of the Winter Games have not lost that spiritof frivolity. Eric Heiden expressed that spirit in 1980 shortly after winninghis record-breaking fifth gold medal in speed skating. Asked what he likedabout the grueling 10,000-meter race, Heiden replied, "It's fun to getdizzy."
Winter Olympiansare infectiously happy in their work. Good thing, too, because for most of themthe chances that they'll make any money from their athletic skills are lousy.That, too, is in contrast to the Summer Games, dominated as they are byhigh-profile stars who view the Olympics as 1) an amusing diversion from theirpro careers (Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Steffi Graf) or 2) a chance to earnendorsements, guaranteed appearance fees and cash performance bonuses from shoecompanies. Does anybody think that the addition of those millionaires of thehard court, the NBA All-Stars, will improve the ambiance of the Summer Games?Jordan, Bird et al. won't come within 20 miles of the Olympic Village unlesstheir hotel suites catch fire. Sure, there are a jillion kayakers andGreco-Roman wrestlers who are in the Summer Olympics for the love and not themoney, but they will always be overshadowed by the superstars of the summersports.
It is true that afew Winter Olympians can anticipate cashing in on their successes. Alpineskiers and figure skaters who win medals usually reap significant monetaryrewards. But these are never the heroes of the Winter Games. Certainly not toAmericans. No, the heroes always include someone like a speed skater from, say,Champaign, Ill., who's sponsored by her local police department. Someone likeBonnie Blair. Or, going back a little further, a group of college hockeyplayers whose NHL prospects were virtually nil but who captured the hearts of anation.
The vast majorityof the athletes of the Winter Games—the lugers, bobsledders, biathletes, speedskaters, cross-country skiers and ski jumpers—have no pot of gold waiting forthem, win or lose. They aren't complaining. They train and sacrifice for onereason: The Winter Games represent the pinnacle of their respective sports.They have no hidden agenda. This is as high as it gets. For most, being thereis reward enough.
In an era ofsuperstars, Super Bowls and superhumans, the Winter Games succeed because lessis sometimes more, in sports as in architecture. Even during the cold war themedal count that so tainted the Summer Olympics—my superpower is stronger thanyour superpower—was an amusing sidelight to the Winter Games, since so many ofthe medal winners come from small, unpretentious and uncontentious countrieslike Sweden and Austria. This continues to embarrass some Americans—GeorgeSteinbrenner, vice-president of the U.S. Olympic Committee, comes to mind—whenin fact the relative lack of political tension is responsible for much of theWinter Olympics' charm. These are the Games of the Little Guy, a celebration ofindividuals, not nations. A schoolteacher from Norway wins across-country-skiing gold. A farmer from Austria wins the downhill race. Astudent from Holland wins a speed skating event. A plasterer from England skijumps his best and finishes dead last but captures the world's fancy. That isthe Winter Olympics.
The Winter Gamesare large enough to command the world's attention, yet small enough, mon, toinclude a bobsled team from Jamaica. There are no larger-than-life performersat these Games. Even the legends—Heiden, Peggy Fleming, Jean-Claude Killy—aredown-to-earth folk with manageable egos, who can walk down most any street inthe world without being mobbed. Their humility comes from training in obscuritymost of their careers until, in one radiant two-week span, their names becomeilluminated for all time.
Then it's over.The Great Whoopee, as Heiden called it in 1980, is finished in a fortnight.There are no peaks left to climb for most Winter Olympic champions. At theprime of their athletic careers, many of them retire from competition. Oh,maybe a skier or a figure skater turns professional and competes in made-for-TVevents. But their life's athletic work is essentially behind them. Their momentin the sun is shorter than a butterfly's.
While watchingthe performances at Albertville, don't turn away, even for a second. You mightmiss the most memorable athletic flight of the year.