There was one more experience from the Torino Olympics that I wanted to share – the time that I saw Apolo Anton Ohno skate to a gold medal, complete with one of those weird moments of drama that seem to only happen in the Olympic Games. However, life inserted a pause in my blogging, and in the meantime I came across a few references to some of the less traditional athletes in the Sochi Winter Olympic Games. These are the ones who are competing for a country that they have only a tenuous relationship to, whether due to a relative’s birth status, timely marriage, or financial incentive. The BBC did a fun job of summing them up for us here (along with a couple athletes who are competing with genuine passion for their home countries that also happen to lack facilities (i.e. snow) for winter sport training).
Among these, perhaps the weirdest is the Dominican cross-country ski team. I say “perhaps” because a new strange fact could easily emerge about any of the others, but this couple seems to be winning so far… though they didn’t come anywhere near a podium, we are all still talking about them – and who here can name the actual gold medalist in that event (what event, even?)?
Gary di Silvestri and Angela Morone are US residents who skied for the small island nation nation of Dominica (not to be confused with the Dominican Republic) in Sochi. When I say “skied” I mean “signed up to ski” – neither of them finished their races (only one even started). Deadspin has a long and involved analysis of their citizenship, past exploits, and athletic prowess here. Is this tale of scamming the system true? I can’t know, but even if only the most basic details, available to every one of us, is factual, this husband and wife clearly don’t get what the Olympics is really about.
What are the Games about? This afternoon I finally got around to listening to a podcast from the crew at Pop Culture Happy Hour wherein these critics had a go at the whole concept of watching sports. They made some good observations, but I would say that they missed some of the most important points in the function of the Olympics. Is the system corrupt, the event over-commercialized? Do we spend too much time talking about the back story on the athletes versus showing the competition? Yes, yes, and yes. However, this is also the only time, every four years, that these high-level athletes get to show off their skills, and we get to watch this extreme athleticism.
Everyone wants to know the star of the football team, has opinions on their MLB team’s manager, lists their favorite basketball stars. How many of you could have named a skier, luger, or skater one month ago? These athletes work and train hard their entire lives. They go through a rigorous competition season of local, regional, and international races, culminating in a World Cup circuit of some sort. Every four years, they get a chance to compete in events that the whole world is watching, a place where one run, race, or performance will determine whether they get a big chunk of metal to hang around their necks. They get to skate under the flag of their country, alongside their teammates who may have been rivals just weeks before. In some ways, it may make no difference in their overall standings in their World Cup or equivalent – it is a huge celebration of athletics and sportsmanship that is a break from their usual routine. On the other hand, they may have only one shot at the Olympic Games, and their performances there could make a huge difference in sponsorships and other income, which could in turn determine whether they are able to continue their athletic careers. When folks make up an athletic past, buy a place on an Olympic team, and then fail to even try to complete a race, they not only mock those individuals who have worked incredibly hard to get there, but they take the spotlight away from them as well, perhaps at what could have been fifteen minutes of well-deserved fame.
Of course, some of the athletes are competing under flags other than their native ones, for completely different reasons. One that was left out of the BBC’s list above, presumably because it has been so high-profile, is the case of Viktor Ahn, formerly known as Ahn Hyun-Soo. This guy was the top medalist in both Torino and Vancouver, for South Korea. However, he was injured last season, and was unable to compete in events which served as qualifiers for the Korean Olympic team. So, he decided to move to Russia, gain citizenship there, and compete as a Russian. This is also known as defecting. Some fans lowered their opinion of Ahn as a result, but that didn’t stop him from medaling in Sochi, too. Personally, I got a little tired of hearing his story over and over.
I saw Ahn compete in Torino, saw him come in second to Apolo
Anton Ohno in the men’s 500 meter, and lead South Korea’s relay team to gold. There were 7 initial heats in the competition, followed by 4 quarterfinals, 2 semifinals, and 2 final runs (one for 1st through 5th place, and one for 6th and 7th). The semifinals and finals took place the day I was there. In addition, the Men’s 5000 meter relay was also competed that day. The relay looks pretty confusing on television, or even at some points in person. However, once you get a handle on what you’re looking at, it is a beautiful sight, and remarkable that more skaters don’t get injured! What a great experience to see these races in person. I keep meaning to go to one of our local Midwestern tracks (such as the Petit Center in Milwaukee) to watch some short-track speed skating.
The Koreans were great, but the personality and athleticism of Ohno won the day for me. Seeing his passion when he won the finals of the 500 m was amazing, and witnessing his emotion during the medal ceremony was something I will never forget. I am not usually a particularly patriotic person, but I even got a little choked up as I watched our flag rise to the strains of the Star-Spangled Banner, in that packed stadium.