2006 Olympics: Muscular Athletes Feud in Spandex


Last night, I watched a strained press conference between American speed skaters Shani Davis and Chad Hedrick. The two feuding athletes spoke about each other in the third person as if they weren't sitting three feet apart, brooding at the same conference table. Davis made a comment about Hedrick refusing to shake his hand after a race. Hedrick responded by taking a long drink of water and standing up as if he were about to walk over there and spit it all over his teammate. "Ooooh, no he didn't!" I said in my perfect Rikki Lake audience member impression when Davis said he could take Hedrick in a celebrity boxing match. "He did not just say that. No way. No way." I sat on my couch and thought to myself, since when did I care about speed skating? And then I remembered. Oh yeah, ever since they threatened to punch each other out. And then there were the Italian ice dancers who came out of retirement to compete in their county's Olympics, only to fall Sunday night in an embarrassing man-stumbles-and-drops-woman debacle right before the end of their program. They then participated in a stare-down which turned into the silent treatment and lasted through the following day's program, only to be broken by kisses and tears on the middle of the ice rink.

I can't remember the last time I cared about the winter Olympics. I also can't remember the last time I watched professional athletes (sorry "amateurs with endorsement deals and personal coaches") act like feuding kindergarteners on an elementary school playground. No wonder why Tanya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan got so much press. This stuff is great.

Another added benefit of watching the Winter Olympics is that most of the events are short, lasting a few seconds or maybe a minute. Ski jumpers are the athletic equivalent of potato chips. You plan on watching just a couple jumps, but "a couple" turns into "until the commercials," and then NBC airs a segment about a skier with only one leg, or a missing eyeball or something, and you have to watch the next set of jumpers to see if he can stick the landing with only one leg and one eyeball. Suddenly twenty or thirty jumpers have gone by and you're glued to the TV for the rest of the night, rooting for Stumpy.

This year, NBC hooked me with the men's halfpipe, the gateway sport in this Olympics addiction. That was fun, so I went on to watch the snowboardcross, a new event that involves a snow-covered BMX-bike course, and athletes who crash into each other a lot. That's my kind of sport.

I watched to the ski jumpers, alpine slalom (featuring Hermann "Herminator" Maier, who looks like the Hulk and, I'm pretty sure, eats small children for breakfast), the men's speed skating, women's speed skating, men's figure skating, ice dancing and finally the women's figure skating which, as far as I'm concerned, is the heroin of the winter sports world. Will these young women in outfits that have been attacked by Bedazzelers pull off the triple-axle triple-lutz combination and be allowed to eat a full meal for the first time in 3 months? Or will their skate catch on an imperfection on the ice, sending them crashing to the floor amidst tears and the knowledge that their coaches will only give them half a power bar for dinner?

These people train their whole lives for a chance at the Olympics, and yet we only care about them for a few weeks every four years. I can't stop watching them on TV to figure out who they are. How does one become passionate about bobsledding? One of the sob stories I saw was about an American bobsledder whose husband quit his job to become her coach and now they travel to competitions with their two small children, one of whom is deaf and has electrodes implanted in his brain. NBC talked at length about this child's struggles, but what I wanted to know was: can a family really survive on an income made solely by bobsledding? What about all of the people who are eliminated after the first or second rounds of competition? Who are they? What do they do?

And what happens if you don't look good in Spandex?

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