So the Vancouver Winter Olympics start tonight, and, awful incidents aside, I am pretty fucking excited. What's that? The Winter games suck? Can't hold a candle to the Summer? Well, Nancy Naysayer, I beg to differ.
I have to admit that a large part of my love for the Winter Games is sentimental. The first Olympics I really remember watching — sat on the couch every night and marveled at the variety of countries and weird little snow sports and, most of all, the swirling drama of the ice skating rink — were the Albertville games in '92. Sure Barcelona intrigued me later that summer (remember when both games were in the same year?? Crazy!), but Albertville truly captured my heart.
There was that horse-jawed wonder Kristi Yamaguchi who skated to a gold while future stars like Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan nipped at her heels. And there was Paul Wylie, that tuft-headed Harvard grad (ohhh a Boston connection!) who glided and hopped to a silver in the men's icecapades. My mother told me all about the great Italian skiing star Alberto Tomba and we watched him together, trundling down the mountain to win what would be his last Olympic gold. Plus there were ski jumpers and lugers (hopefully safe-and-sound ones), cartoony looking sports that I'd never seen before. They were my first Olympics and thus the best ones, and they've endeared the Winter games to me permanently. That Lillehammer came just two short years later to help shore up the snow-madness (Why me? Why me???) certainly didn't hurt matters.
But there's also something a little less personal about why I love the Winter. Sure the Summer games have way more events, and feature somewhat more relatable sports, but for me that almost makes them a bit too familiar, too colloquial. No, I don't often go flipping off of narrow beams or see people jumping between two uneven bars when walking down the street, but we've all swam before, we've all run, and we've probably seen someone throw a javelin at a high school track meet. But the Winter games feel more rarefied, they're stranger and more hinged on circumstances, on climate and place. Does that, by cruel trick of geography, make the Winter games pretty lily-white? Yes, unfortunately. (Though who can forget the magnificent Surya Bonaly??) But that unpleasant fact aside, the sports at hand feel more like an odd human accomplishment, a sign of people taking hard and icy and snowy situations and making the best of them, strapping two planks to their feet and going flying. Humans persevere in harsh conditions and here's a fun way to celebrate that.
I like that quaintness and ingenuity. It feels slightly more special and small than the big grand-stand Summer games (which, obviously, I am wholeheartedly obsessed with as well). Plus in the golden years of my Olympic boyhood, the Winter games were in quaint little European hamlets that may as well have been from a fairytale. A bunch of internationals coming together every four years, with turgid pomp, to do wacky things on ice and snow? Yes, absolutely, sign me up. It was like Ice World from Mario 3 made manifest. The Winter Olympics could never be in Boston (sorry, Wachusett), so they just seemed all the more magical. The world is terribly big and terribly strange and isn't that wonderful, is what the TV said to me for those two weeks in '92.
But mostly, guys, it's the skating. I mean, the skating. Agony, ecstasy, crazy music, crazier clothes. That's a sport I can really get behind.