The Olympics are fun, but I don't think they are as exciting as when both Summer and Winter Games were held in the same year. Back then, you really had to wait four years, not two, for the next Olympics, and so a huge amount of anticipation built up. Now, some Games or another seems to come around fairly often, so it's hard to get as hyped up about it.
This is not to cast aspersions on the achievements of the athletes, or the excitement of the competitions themselves. In fact, judging by what's going on in Vancouver, the sports are getting more and more challenging and daring. Shaun White flying through the air - I mean, jeez louise. Amazing.
And is it just me, or are the athletes uniformly rock-star glamorous? Even White, with his shock of flaming red hair and baggy snowboarder wardrobe, gives off the kind of good-hearted bad-boy sex appeal that makes young girls swoon. And I have never seen so many sets of perfect teeth in my life. Without exception, the Vancouver Olympians have teeth you could read by. Really, there isn't a bad looker in the lot.
left to right, Bode Miller, Shani Davis, Apolo Ohno
left to right, Shaun White, Lindsay Vonn, Katherine Reutter
Today's athletes are highly polished, highly technical, highly trained. Physically, they have to be - their sports are more competitive, more daring, more dangerous. They are all also media packages, looking toward a life after competition of endorsements and television appearances. Many of them struggled and sacrificed much to get where they are, so they can't be faulted for this. Everyone has to make a living, and these folks are the best of the best in their fields. They are entitled to some payback and reward.
But I must admit that I miss the old days of scandal and mess, the juicy unrehearsed mess that seemed to accompany the torch wherever it went. What Olympics is complete without some deeply delicious controversy, a la Nancy Kerrigan/Tonya Harding? In Vancouver, everyone, even the former problem child Bode Miller, is decorously well-behaved and poised. What fun is that?
I also miss the non-top tier athletes. There always used to be competitors who were awful but undaunted - think of the Jamaican bobsledders - who inspired not by talent but by grit, but they are few and far between anymore. The level of competition is so high that they are not welcome; in fact, the rules now state that Olympians must have competed at world-class levels in their sport to be eligible to participate in the games. This ensures exciting competitions and world records, but it also eliminates folks like my all-time favorite Olympian, Eddy "the Eagle" Edwards.
For those who don't remember him, Eddy was a British ski-jumper who participated in the 1988 Calgary Games. He was a blue-collar, virtually penniless downhill skier who had switched to jumping because, among other reasons, it was cheaper to do. (Eddy was so broke that he had to stuff his secondhand ski-boots with five pairs of socks to make them fit, and on occasion he lived in a mental hospital - not as a patient, but because he had no place else to go.) He wore coke-bottle glasses that fogged up when he skied and a goofy buzz-cut hairdo, and his nose was lumpy and crooked from being broken more than once crashing into the hill. He was about the worst ski-jumper ever. He was also unfazed by his lack of skill and courageous in the face of his terribleness. He didn't care that he was going to come in last or maybe end up in a tangled heap of skis and snow at the bottom. He just wanted to participate.
Despite the grumblings of some who saw him as "cheapening" the sport, Eddy was arguably the most popular athlete at the 1988 Games. He touched something in everyone who had not been the fastest, the strongest, the best ball-thrower, and who had perhaps memories of standing against the wall, waiting and waiting to be picked for the team. The spectators would chant, "Eddy, Eddy!" whenever he appeared, and he remains the only athlete mentioned by name in the closing ceremonies (also sparking an "Eddy, Eddy!" chant by the crowd).
Here is Eddy (complete with Finnish narration) demonstrating his terrible jumping skills and his wonderful chutzpah.
Eddy has had his ups and downs since Calgary (NPI), but he is remembered fondly. He was a torch-bearer this year, carrying the Olympic Flame through Winnipeg. I miss him.