2/24/2006

The Winter Olympics: Send The Pros Home

Maybe it's a Canadian thing, all that snow and ice, but I've always liked the Winter Olympics better than the Summer variety. Until recently, Canada hasn't done any better in the Winter than in the Summer games, so it can't even be put down to chauvinism. I suppose part of it is that so many of the sports are ones that are much easier to identify with from a North American mind set. Skiing, and combinations there of, skating, tobogganing, (if you can call strapping yourself to a piece of plastic, lying on your back and going down a sheet of ice feet first tobogganing) and snowboarding are all things that anybody at home can do. Unlike the sprinters, high jumpers, hurdlers, gymnasts, and pole-vaulters, who compete during the Summer Olympics, I have a much easier time identifying with the people who compete in the Winter games. Of course I'm not going to try ski jumping in my back yard or a triple toe loop on skates, but at least I've strapped on a pair of skis in my life and been skating. How many of you have ever decided to go for a casual pole vault on the weekend? Or maybe chuck around the discus with some friends? It's far more likely that you've gotten together for a ski weekend at some time in your life than sticking what looks like a cannon ball under your chin, and trying to chuck it sixty or seventy yards. It's not like the Winter Olympics are any less corrupt or commercial than the Summer games; just look at the whole fiasco that surrounded the Salt Lake City games from the organizing committee to the figure skating judging. Or any time a skier is interviewed in the winner's circle and they automatically flip their skis so the brand is facing the cameras; Nike or Fisher, equipment suppliers are the real winners in all these games no matter what the season. Drugs and means of cheating are just a prevalent, and perhaps even more so. Blood packing before cross-country skiing races (transfusions of fresh blood that supposedly gives you an advantage somehow) seems to have been a favourite for a long time and virtually undetectable until recently. I wouldn't be surprised by anything anymore when it came to devising new and ingenious ways of cheating by athletes and their coaches to give themselves any extra edge possible. But, even knowing all that, it still seems that there is something far less tainted about the Winter games. Perhaps it is the sheer insanity of some of the sports. Downhill ski racing may look glamorous to watch, but skiing down the side of a mountain at speeds up to 100mph and over is a really good way to get yourself killed I've always thought. There has been many a time I've tobogganed down a steep hill, that's covered in ice, but I've never done it lying on my back, steering by pointing my toes, and not being able to really see where I'm going. That's just insanely dangerous. In the Winter Olympics there is far more of an element of risk involved than most sports in Summer Olympics. Okay if you go out for javelin catching you might run the occasional risk, but nothing compared to what happens if you lose it completely throwing yourself into the air off a 90-metre ski jump. They not only expect you to survive, but you're judged on style points and how neat and tidy a landing you can pull off. (Wind milling your arms in a desperate attempt to maintain balance counts against you.) Unfortunately, I haven't been able to watch much of these Olympics this year except for a couple of periods of men's hockey. In the past fifteen years the only times I'll usually watch hockey at all anymore is during international events; the stuff that's played in the National Hockey League (N.H.L), and North America in general is just to boring to endure for long. But put the game on a decent sized ice surface, where there is room to skate and make passes and it becomes something enjoyable again. It also dispels the myth that Canadians are the best hockey country in the world. At this Olympics Canada will be lucky to finish 6th after not even making it out of the quarterfinals, losing 2-0 to Russia. What bothers me is how much media attention Canadian Olympic Hockey team has gotten. We have a speed skater who has four medals already at these Olympics; Canadian women are making huge breakthroughs in cross country skiing, winning a silver in the relay and gold in the 15 kilometre sprint; we won gold and silver in the men's skeleton, and have already exceeded out best results for medal totals at a games. But the majority of attention is fixated on the hockey teams failure to score goals and medal. What I find especially ironic about all of this is that in the three Olympics that professional hockey players have been allowed to compete, Canada has only won a medal once. The one medal, Gold at Salt Lake, only came about because Sweden lost in a fluke to Belarus, Russia was in disarray, and the Slovaks didn't have adequate time to put a team together. They ended up squeaking out a win against the American's who play the same style of hockey, but not even as good as the Canadians. Hockey isn't even Canada's official national sport that, honour lies in the hands of lacrosse, yet it seems to be such a national blind spot. Any attempt to criticize the way in which Canadians play or are taught hockey is treated as treason akin to burning the flag in the United States. All the euphemisms that are used to describe the way Canadians play hockey; willing to get their hands dirty, playing with heart, tough, and so on make it sound like skill and talent are irrelevant. Even the term for everyone's favourite type of player, power forward, implies muscle over talent. But what type of player does this end up producing? Well, what we saw at these Olympics were big, hulking guys who had circles skated around them by faster, more talented European players. In their last three games of the tournament, Canada scored only three goals, all of them in one period against the Czech Republic, on a goalie who was having a bad game. Once he was replaced at the start of the second period the Canadians couldn't score again. If it hadn't been for the Canadian goaltender, making some pretty spectacular saves, Canada would have lost the game. To be fair, that type of player is what's needed in the confines of the ridiculously small N.H.L. rinks where there is very little room to manoeuvre. Brute strength and the ability to run people over are much more important than being able to skate fast and pass the puck with any type of ability. Even then, with the game built and designed for behemoths in mind, last years leading scorer was the 5'7" Martin St. Louis of the Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning. While people talk about how the players have gotten bigger and faster in the modern era, their speed has all the subtlety and skill of a run away car. They go straight up and down the ice, continually picking up speed, and running over all objects in its path, but can do little else. There were eight teams in the quarterfinals for the men's Olympic hockey medal round. Canada's final standing will depend on who the losers are in this round and the next. If the teams eliminated have a better record than Canada did in the preliminary round they will finish ahead of them in the standings. I don't think it's possible for them to finish eighth, but sixth, and even seventh are very likely where they will end up. The headlines across Canada, and front pages of newspapers, have all carried pictures of the dejected hockey players sitting on the bench as they watch the seconds count down in their loss. On the same day Canadian athletes had won four medals, two gold, a silver and a bronze, yet all it seems we're supposed to care about is one team's fortunes. On a day we should have been celebrating wonderful victories all that was deemed worthy of reporting was a bunch of professional athletes losing a game. How do you think that makes the people who survive on spare change and usually train at their own expense feel? These guys, who make more money in a month than most Olympic athletes, who are put on pedestals by the press and subsequently the public, get more publicity by losing than others do by winning a Gold medal. I'd be pushing for a ban on professionals in the Olympic games again. Send the dream teams home, be they basketball, hockey, or tennis. These games should be the hour when the people who strive for years to obtain the pinnacle of achievement in their sport are allowed their moment in the spotlight. The media and the public barely recognise their existence except for these two-week periods every four years, and now even that is being taken away from them by the arrival of professionals in basketball, hockey, and a lesser degree tennis. The Olympics have fallen a long way from their original idealism, if it actually ever existed, but some essence of that still remains in the efforts of the athletes who compete and win through genuine effort, and skill. There has been a concentrated effort to reform the Olympics. Corruption among officials is being rooted out, drug cheaters are being hunted down, (a little overzealously by Richard Pound is his desire for the spotlight) and they're even trying to make the arcane rules governing the judging of skating events understandable. But as far as I'm concerned, if they want to keep the light on the people who matter, the athletes, they need to turn back the clock to the days before they allowed the professionals to participate. Be they the hockey players from the N.H.L. or the Basketball players from the National Basketball Association, they are a distraction from the rest of the athletes who strive and compete for their countries. Give the games back to the people who spend their lives preparing for them, not the people for whom they are only an afterthought and something to do if they feel so inclined. I'd rather see a bunch of amateurs try their best and lose, than so –called professionals achieve the same results and steal the spotlight.

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