Before you scoff at the number of less-than-mainstream sports that will make headlines during the Winter Olympics this month, remember this: Almost every athletic endeavor is harder when performed on snow or ice. (I’ll say this: hopping in a bobsled and managing to slide to the bottom of a mountain .0026 of a second faster than your competition is a lost art to me. Seems like gravity decides the gold in that arena.)
We spectators tend to judge a sport in part by measuring how we might handle the challenge: I could never hit Tim Lincecum’s curve ball, but I can shoot free throws better than some first-ballot Hall of Famers. When it comes to the Winter Games, I’d be a mess in every last competition (including that bobsled). I’ve been on skates and skis and stick-handled a hockey puck (on roller blades). And it gets ugly.
I love the way the Winter Games stand out in a fan’s memory. Whether it’s athletes skiing with rifles on their back, a speedskater sliding 50 feet — at 50 miles per hour — on his backside, or a hockey team making us believe in miracles, the Winter Olympics somehow do the memory equivalent of bookmarking our brains. (It may have something to do with February otherwise being among the slowest sports months on the calendar.) Even the settings for the Winter Games are more memorable than their summer counterparts. How often have you uttered the words Nagano or Torino, much less paid attention to the charms and history of these cities? Huge metropolitan centers draw the Summer Games every four years. But for the Winter Games, we all get to call a village our home for two weeks. (Okay, Vancouver’s a good-sized city. I paint with broad strokes.)
The first Winter Olympics I remember were those of Sarajevo in 1984. The ravaging of the war-torn city that ensued only makes the champions of ’84 seem that much more distant. Scott Hamilton was the figure-skating star of those games, with Bill Johnson playing the perfectly American role of underdog and winning the downhill, the most glamorous of all ski races, an event never won before by a Yank.
In 1988, I gawked with my college buddies at the beauty of Katarina Witt. Consider that: freshmen in college putting the books and beer down long enough to see who might be crowned Olympic ice princess. Witt was that gorgeous. This was also the year speedskater Dan Jansen — a favorite in two races — fell twice after losing his sister to cancer.
Kristi Yamaguchi stole the show in Albertville, France, in 1992, becoming the first American woman to win a gold medal in figure skating since Dorothy Hamill in 1976. Jansen returned, but was again denied a medal.
The Winter Games made a quick comeback in 1994, the new schedule now alternating the summer and winter Games every two years. And in his final race — the 1,000 meters — Jansen became an Olympic champion. Bonnie Blair won her fourth and fifth golds in Lillehammer, Norway, but Jansen is the skater who bookmarked my brain 16 years ago. Try waiting six years to honor a lost sibling. (As for the shenanigans between a pair of rival American skaters in ’94, I’ve officially placed that memory chapter in the blessedly tiny tabloid section of my noodle.)
Tara Lipinski made me feel old before my 30th birthday when she won figure-skating gold in Nagano in 1998 ... before her 16th birthday. Apolo Ohno emerged in 2002, along with a new sport — short-track speedskating — that brought some NASCAR (and the possibility of crashes around every turn) to the Winter Games. Then in 2006, in Torino, Italy (a city I called home for a magical year of my youth), Shaun White and his snowboarding rivals made the fabled Winter Olympics a modern extravaganza in every sense.
A new memory bookmark will be made later this month from the scenes in Vancouver. As unlikely as it is that I’ll be able to relate to the bookmark-worthy performance, it’s just as certain the event — and the new hero — will last a lifetime.