March 02, 2010
Americans Catch Up With World In Winter
BY: Bob George/BosSports.net
VANCOUVER -- All these little countries from Scandinavia and these bigger countries which contain sections of the Alps in them can finally step aside.
They come from Utah, Vermont, Squaw Valley, New Hampshire, Seattle and the good old Bay State. We don't have the fjords of Norway, the super high taxes of Sweden which buy you some killer health care, the abundance of vowels in most every Finnish word, the lack of vowels in most every Polish or Slovakian word, the yodelers in the majestic mountains of Switzerland or the autobahns or Germany where you can do 200 kph (that's about 120 mph) and be considered a slowpoke. But what we do have stateside is one awfully great Olympic team, one that put on a show for the ages at the 2010 Winter Olympics in the city where the NHL Canucks call home.
The Vancouver games closed on Sunday night, with the USA totaling 37 medals. This is the biggest haul by any nation in Winter Games history, never mind the USA. Canada, the proud host nation which badly wanted to get the most medals, did get the most Gold Medals with 14. The 14th Gold Medal outdid the other 13, that being a scintillating 3-2 overtime win over the USA in the men's hockey final. But the USA managed to outshine the home town team, and in doing so establishes the USA as a winter sports power, finally after all these years.
37 medals is an awesome total for winter sports. And it was done despite both curling teams finishing in last place.
Things happened here that either hadn't happened in a long while, or never happened before. Lindsay Vonn's Gold Medal in the women's downhill was the first ever in USA history. The Gold Medal in the men's Nordic Combined was unprecedented, and quite a stunner in a sport dominated by Norway and Sweden. And the men's 4-man Bobsleigh took home a Gold Medal, the first for the USA in that event since 1948. That's a nice way to get over the trauma of not seeing Jamaica there for the first time since their famous debut in 1988.
These winter games were the best ever, though IOC president Jacques Rogge did not say as much in his closing statement on Sunday night at BC Place. It does not appear that Rogge will continue the tradition of his predecessor, Juan Antonio Samaranch, of declaring every Games "the best ever" (which he did not use to describe the 1996 Atlanta Summer Games). Rogge should have said something to that effect. Other than weather issues and tragedy, these Vancouver Games were terrific, and it was a terrific city which played host that all the world now knows is a world class place to visit someday.
With the closure of these Games, it is time to pay tribute to some of the more enduring moments of these Games. No longer can the USA say that they own the summer and are wimps in the winter.
Japanese figure skater Mao Asada looked about as glum as you could look on the medal stand. She got the Silver Medal for a terrific performance in the ladies figure skating competition, and made history by landing a combined three triple axels in the two programs she skated. But she got clobbered by Kim Yu-Na of South Korea, who authored maybe the finest performance in her sport in Olympic history. Asada did have some slip-ups, but she needs to wipe that glum look off her face and wear that Silver Medal with pride. Those triple axels were simply riveting, and she is no slouch herself. It is one thing to choke, and it is another to simply get beaten by a cleaner routine.
The curling events again turned out to be a cult favorite with fans in the USA, but beneath the interest was some strange handling of personnel rarely seen in curling. Both USA skips, John Shuster (who was on Pete Fenson's Bronze Medal squad in Torino four years ago) and Debbie McCormick were taken off the anchor spot and moved back in the shooting order. Shuster had a horrid tournament and McCormick was not far behind from a shooting standpoint. But the changing of order, and the incredible benching of a skip (which happened to Shuster after the fourth match) simply does not happen in curling. This is tantamount to Tom Brady replacing Drew Bledsoe, albeit under different circumstances. The USA needs to regroup and present a better product in four years, since it is thanks to them that curling is enjoying an upswing in interest in the USA.
If anyone needed redemption here in Vancouver, it was Lindsey Jacobellis, the snowboarder who threw away a Gold Medal in Torino on a showboat move at the end of the women's snowboard cross. In Vancouver, Jacobellis never made it to the finals, falling in a semifinal round race. She has had four years of answering all these "what were you thinking" questions with a thousand variations on the words "Oh, well!" A Gold Medal in Vancouver would have shut up her detractors, but unless she comes back in four years to try and win Gold in Sochi, her legacy will continue to be that boneheaded move at the end of her finals run four years ago. To listen to her, it's almost not that important to her, which cuts to the heart of a major mindset of snowboarding. They are more concerned with entertaining rather than winning medals. As long as that mindset continues, Americans should really ignore the fact that she didn't win Gold four years ago when in fact it perhaps meant little to her at all, and just leave her alone with a legacy she probably doesn't mind one bit.
Figure skating provided some interesting romantic angles. The Chinese couple of Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo won the Gold Medal in pairs figure skating. He is 36, she is 33. They won a Bronze Medal in Torino despite Shen taking a nasty spill on a throw spin. In the four years following Torino, they fell in love, got married, then decided to come back and try once more for Gold after Bronzes at Torino and Salt Lake. Geriatric by figure skating standards, their Gold Medal win was heartwarming and nice to see, the culmination of lots of sacrifice, living apart and intense determination. On a lighter side, some of their American competitors had a sidebar which would have played well on a soap opera. Amanda Evora, partnered with Mark Ladwig, a married father of one young child, had to compete against her boyfriend, Jeremy Barrett, who skates with Caydee Denney. Barrett and Evora share an apartment in Florida and seemingly have no trouble skating against each other. The pairs competition began on Valentine's Day; the couple merely put off their Valentine's Day celebration for a few days until the competition was over.
And then there was the interesting story of Tanith Belbin and Johnny Weir. Belbin, who partners with Ben Agosto in ice dancing, was put in a difficult position regarding lodging and roommate assignments in Vancouver. There was only one room left, and she had to choose between two people as roomies, but both of them were men. One of her choices was Gold Medalist Evan Lysacek, her ex-boyfriend. The other was Johnny Weir, a teammate of Lysacek's. Belbin rather obviously chose Weir over her ex, and the two roomed platonically throughout the Games. Belbin claims that the two have been long time friends, and Weir said he didn't get along with many people on the team and Belbin was a nice choice as a roomie. Whether he became the personification of Jack Tripper is not clear, but you'd have a hard time finding a red blooded single American male who would be presented with a similar situation and not think he just died and went to Heaven.
Speed skater Shani Jones was a grumpy guy in 2006, causing a stir because of his unwillingness to skate the pursuit races and angering his teammates in the process. At times in Torino he came off sounding like Barry Bonds. In Vancouver, he won a Gold Medal in the 1000 meters and a Silver Medal in the 1500 meters. Still, it is hard to watch him and root for him, despite his kinder demeanor in 2010. Chad Hedrick, his rival and verbal sparring partner in 2006, was also here in 2010 and won a Silver Medal in the team pursuit. But nothing was made of the two men or any hostility which might have carried over from Torino. Jones won the race he was favored to win, and was gracious every step of the way. But you cannot forget how hostile he was four years ago, and how his lack of team compassion and comraderie overshadowed what great things he brought to the table in speed skating.
Once again, Canada and the USA met in ice hockey finals, just like 2002 in Salt Lake. And once again, the guys and gals from up north prevailed. Wanting to win and having to win are two different things. It was no shame for the USA to lose to Canada. Apolo Anton Ohno said it best when he encouraged the USA hockey team to "walk tall" with their Silver Medals. But had Canada lost, the entire nation would have been crushed beyond belief. You might compare it to Peyton Manning losing the Super Bowl to New Orleans in a year where the Colts were expected to go 19-0. They threw away their perfect season in Week 16, but then Manning threw away the season with the late interception in the Super Bowl. No such thing happened to the Canadian hockey team, as Sidney Crosby achieved Gretzky-esque status in Canada with the overtime goal to win the Gold Medal for Canada. Canada needed that moment badly, and Americans can only sit back and say "Well done, guys!"
If NBC wants to make one improvement in their programming, they might want to stop running primetime coverage beyond the 11:00 PM hour, especially in the wintertime. Staying up until midnight is more palatable in the summertime. But if NBC insists on four-hour shows on nights where they insist on making figure skating the second coming of the Super Bowl, they should run the show from 7:00 to 11:00 instead of 8:00 to 12 midnight. One has to wonder how much of their audience they lose after 11:00, especially when you have a ladies' final where no one from the USA has any chance of medaling. You can bet that DVRs across the nation were running wild everywhere, and four years from now when the Games will be in Russia, expect lots and lots of recording instead of live viewing.
Tragedy raised its head in these Games. Watching the anguish of Canadian figure skater Joannie Rochette after the short program was heartbreaking. Rochette's mother passed away of a heart attack two days prior, and she skated the program in her mother's honor. She wound up winning the Bronze Medal, finishing behind the brilliant skaters Kim Yu-Na and Mao Asada. But at times she could not contain her grief, and she won the hearts of everyone who watched her skate through the emotional pain over the loss of her mother. Most of the time, if you could talk to the deceased, they would say that they would want their survivors to go on with their lives and don't give up anything on their account. Rochette can now go home to Quebec and deal with her mother in private with her family. But she showed the world that she is very courageous, and she served as an inspiration to all who have obstacles to overcome. She deserves our vote as the most beautiful woman of these Olympic Games.
And finally, the country of Georgia came front and center throughout these games, but for all the wrong reasons. On the day of the Opening Ceremony, Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili lost his life in a horrific crash during a training run on the course. Known to all as the fastest course of its kind in the world, Kumaritashvili lost control of his sled on this fast track and crashed into support poles which were not padded or kept cordoned off from the track. All sorts of postulating came into play, from the slick condition of the track to whether or not someone of his lack of experience should have been allowed to compete to why the exposed poles weren't properly dealt with prior to competition. Kumaritashvili was eulogized at both the opening and the closing ceremonies, and has already been laid to rest in his hometown. To say that his death defines these Olympic Games is really unfair to the good people of Vancouver. But whenever this sort of thing happens, blame and questions naturally follow. Most all Olympic sports involve lots of speed, some of it very dangerous. As long as athletes are willing to put themselves in harm's way, not much will change. But if NASCAR can become safety conscious following the death of Dale Earnhardt, the Olympics can and should do the same.
Vancouver always was a great place to live and visit. Now the whole world knows it. In four years, the Games will head for the Black Sea resort of Sochi. Mikhail Gorbachev had a summer place on the Black Sea. It is a region which is mostly unknown in these parts. You don't think of Russia and opulence in the same discussion, but this is one area of the former Soviet Union which will get some needed world exposure. These will be the first Olympics in this region since the boycotted Moscow Summer Games of 1980. Things are different now, but Russian Premier Vladmir Putin has already thrown down the gauntlet and challenged his home athletes to get ready and do better than they did here in Vancouver.
Au Revoir, Vancouver. Doubre Outra, Sochi.
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