Too damn hot to get all fired up about cold sport
I’ve never really gotten the Winter Olympics Games. Sure, it’s fun every four years to turn on the telly, turn up the air-con and pretend I know what a triple axel is for a couple of hours. But aside from figure skating and the occasional Bradbury-ism, I’ve always seen the colder Games as a bit of background noise, a comma in the sporting events cycle between Sydney and Athens, Beijing and London.
This year, for the first time in my life, I have Winter Olympics fever – and I suspect it’s because I am far from the salt and sand of the country I’ll be rooting for.
The Winter Olympics just makes more sense when viewed from the northeast United States. Or, I suspect, from a snowy Zurich or a frosty Seskatchewan. It’s easier to get into the spirit of the dream, if you will, in a cold northern February than at the tail-end of a sweaty southern summer.
The yanks are certainly getting into it. NBC’s coverage of the opening ceremony last Friday night was the second most watched non-U.S. Winter Olympics Opening Ceremony ever in the states, with an average audience of 32.6 million people, up 47% from Torino in 2006. Only Lillehammer was viewed by more Americans, viewership buoyed in part by interest in the Nancy Kerrigan-Tonya Harding drama.
I was one of those ramping up NBC’s ratings last week, marking the opening ceremony at a party in a very snowbound Queens. My gracious hosts made a batch of Nanaimo bars - a kind of lesser Mars slice with chocolate, cream, coconut and crushed crackers – and served up bowls of poutine, the popular Quebecois dish of French fries, gravy and cheese curd. Guests were asked to dress as a country and to bring along a national dish, primary-school style. I whacked on a cricket jumper and brought over a tray of meat pies from a downtown spot called “Tuck Shop”.
The Ceremony itself was a near-disaster saved by a nice rendition of Hallelujah from KD Lang – where was Leonard Cohen? – and a pod of nifty-looking 3D whales swimming across the stadium floor.
The rest was the kind of amateurish bunkum that makes you long for a miming Chinese girl or a Nikki Webster comeback. There was the Freeman-esque torch malfunction; the terrible Nelly Furtado-Bryan Adams duet and a spot of slam poetry for those who stuck around.
Yep, Canada went there. Slam poet Shane Koyzcan delivered a poem called “We Are More” in which he declared of himself and his fellow Canucks: “We’re more than just hockey and fishing lines off the rocky coast of the maritimes. And some say what defines us is as simple as please and thank you.”
Hilarious though it was, too few Aussies saw it. The ratings were okay for Channel Nine; about 1.66 million watched the live and repeated screenings compared with 2.82 million who watched the opening of Beijing on Channel Seven. But when I sent an email back home asking 20 friends if they’d watched the ceremony, responses revealed a dismissive attitude towards the chillier Games.
Some had seen snippets on the news, but most answered with an emphatic “no”. One person said, “No way”; another admitted she didn’t even realise it was on.
The most telling response came from a friend who confessed, “Nope. But then, I don’t even watch the opening ceremony of the real Olympics.”
Which begs the question: do we Aussies consider the Winter Olympics a real Olympics?
Over here they do. The newspapers are fixated by the happenings up north – from Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili’s tragic death to threats against fur-wearing figure skater Johnny Weir. Then, of course, there is the American obsession with – and presumption of – gold, gold, gold. The bars here are full of beef-heads yelling “USA!” at wiry, sparkled-up figure skaters on flat screens.
It makes sense that mountain sports resonate in this environment. I look outside my window and there’s a blizzard every other Monday. The sidewalks are marked by mini moguls, wannabe Kristi Yamaguchis have taken to skating rinks in Central Park and at Rockefeller Center and there are skiiers in the meadows of Central Park.
Back in Sydney, it’s ice on the telly and sweat on my brow when I’m watching the Winter Games. You’ve got to grab a Slurpee just to break the cognitive dissonence.
I note the Aussie papers have token Vancouver sections on their sites, not a patch on the glossy front page-linked section on the New York Times website. And on the second day of coverage, the Winter Olympics was beaten out by episodes of Castle on Seven and House on Ten.
It might be the weather keeping us away from the Winter Games. But let’s face it; it might also be the podium. In Summer Games, we’re the little guy making a big splash. In Vancouver, we’re small fish in a big icy pond and we’ll probably make as much of a splash as Matthew Mitchum. So far, we’ve had one medallist, and he’s really a Canuck.
So I’ll enjoy Vancouver while it’s snowing outside. But when the Sochi Games start in February 2014, I might pass and wait for the next, real, Olympics.
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