Why the Winter Olympics are Boring
by Matt Wasowski (based on the presentation I gave at Nerd Nite on Friday)
I walked into my bedroom last night and instinctively turned the TV to SportsCenter as I readied for bed. And that’s when the anchor, recapping Bode Miller’s bronze medal-winning race in the downhill, said a mouthful by saying only a few words, “He won by .09 seconds. That’s less than the length of a ski.”
“Wow! What an amazing, heart-stopping finish that must have been,” I thought to myself. I hadn’t seen any Winter Olympics highlights all day, so I immediately turned my gaze to the television, giddy to see the moving images of Miller dueling it out on the descent, only to watch him get bested by such a miniscule margin. I couldn’t wait to see what surely must have been an exhilarating finish.
But then I realized why I hadn’t sought out any Winter Olympics highlights all day, despite watching the news and checking espn.com numerous times – because the Winter Olympics are incredibly boring and anticlimactic.
Way too many of the actual events of the Winter Olympics simply, and boringly, consist of one person racing against a clock – not actual competitors. The luge boasts one person hurtling down a twisting track at breakneck speed. Same for the bobsled, though it’s one team instead of one athlete. The snowboarding half-pipe shows-off one competitor careening along the scooped-out innards of a mountain – alone. The ski jump launches one – and only one – daredevil into thin air. Even the much beloved figure skating only permits one person or pair to be on the ice. And of course, Miller’s downhill event is one man skiing solo down a mountain. With only one athlete or team competing at one time in an event, the drama is all but removed.
We only need to look at most viewers’ favorite Olympics memories.
In the 100-meter butterfly finals of the 2008 Beijing games, Michael Phelps created one of the greatest Olympic memories of all-time when he chased down Milorad Cavic and touched him out by the length of less than a finger. In those same Beijing games, the world watched in awe as Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt blew away his competition in the 100-meter dash, as audiences around the globe could see nearly 15 meters of open track between Bolt and his closest competitor. And many Americans will never forget the 1992 ‘Dream Team’s’ 68-point drubbing of poor Angola or the 1984 Summer games in Los Angeles when Mary Decker Slaney was seemingly tripped by Zola Budd in the 3,000 meters. These are some of the most distinctive memories of any Olympics – Summer Olympics, that is.
But how many truly iconic Winter Olympic memories are there? Besides the 1980 ‘Miracle-on-Ice’ hockey team’s upset over the USSR; not many. In fact, arguably the second most memorable winter games moment might have been when Tonya Harding’s goon took out Nancy Kerrigan’s knee – and that wasn’t even during an Olympics! That scandal actually happened during the U.S. Figure Skating Championships which preceded the Lillehammer Games. And that’s my point – in order to make a truly memorable winter games moment, it took these two particular athletes who normally compete alone on the ice to actually physically ‘compete’ against each other at the same time.
When the world watched Phelps beat Cavic by .01 seconds, the worldwide audience, thanks to slow-motion replays, could truly see just how impossibly brief, and thrilling, .01 seconds is. In the case of Bolt’s sprinting, the world could understand how truly gigantic .3 seconds can be. And when watching Team USA dominate Angola, the world could truly grasp the prowess of a basketball team that featured the likes of Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, AND Magic Johnson.
Competing against an opponent makes any sport better. It’s one thing to watch Lebron James dunk while all alone on a fast break, but it’s another thing to watch Lebron James dunk in traffic over Tim Duncan. It’s one thing to watch David Tyree catch a pass from Eli Manning in the middle of the field during warm-ups, but it’s another thing to watch David Tyree catch pass from Eli Manning in the middle of the field during the Super Bowl with Rodney Harrison draped all over him. Even in literature, any great protagonist needs an equally great foil.
So last night as I excitedly turned my gaze to the TV to watch the reply of a great athlete lose by “less than the length of a ski,” I was justifiably disheartened to see an image of Miller crossing the finish line all by his lonesome. Turns out there was nearly an hour between when he finished his run and when Switzerland’s Didier Defago, the downhill gold medalist, finished his. What could have been another iconic Olympics moment – the three medalists crossing the finish line within four feet of each other – was simply another hum-drum moment of an entire Olympics that is inherently designed to feature almost exclusively hum-drum moments.
With lugers and bobsledders and downhill skiers routinely winning by hundredths of a second, it’s a shame that the viewers will never truly get a sense of how unfathomably close these races really are. Imagine sprinting for 90 seconds and losing in the amount of time it takes to snap your fingers.
Too bad we’ll never see a more compelling Winter Olympics until the IOC or some wacky extreme athlete creates a wider sledding track that accommodates multiple sleds, adds a few adjacent ski jumps (how cool would it be to watch four ski jumpers soaring at the same time?), or clears out a wider ski slope that can fit eight athletes at once like an outdoor track. Only then will the Winter Olympics have a chance to create thrilling finishes that will be remembered for generations. Until then, we’ll watch yet another person run the race of his or her life, only to find out hours later if he or she won. Now that’s a slippery slope.