Consider Hannah Kearney, U.S. women’s mogul skiing gold medalist in 2010, returning to defend her medal run on the second night of the Sochi games. On her final run, the 27-year-old national hero’s balance faltered for a microsecond while slamming into a snow mound at 50 miles per hour. She recovered with superhuman grace and strength, crossing the finish line with poles triumphantly upraised. She came in third, less than a point behind a pair of Canadian sisters, Justine and Chloe Dufour-Lapointe. Dry-eyed, she told an interviewer moments later that her career had ended in that microsecond.
Consider Shaun White, the Tony Hawk of snowboarding whose gold medal performances at the 2006 and 2010 Winter Olympics legitimized the sport in America. In NBC’s endless human interest segments, White appeared ready to complete an Olympic trilogy with his familiar Muppet hair shorn, his baggy boarding togs replaced with a tight black outfit that evoked Luke Skywalker’s black fatigues from Return of the Jedi that represented the loss of youthful illusion.
White bowed out of the urban skateboarding-inspired slopestyle boarding event to save his joints, shredded from a lifetime of impacts, for the halfpipe competition, where he had won half the Olympic gold medals ever awarded. He fell twice in his first run, recovered in his second for a respectable score that was 4.5 points behind the winner, Switzerland’s Iouri Podladtchikov. White’s score on his qualifying run was a full point higher than Podladtchikov’s winning score, but it didn’t matter; for the first time in the history of the sport, no American medaled in the men’s halfpipe.
White gave his snowboard to a kid from the Make-A-Wish foundation.
Glowered over by Vladimir Putin, a symbol of the failure of post-Cold War democracy in Russia whose very name screams “supervillian,” kicked off by a Hunger Games-level spectacle, the Sochi games have been plagued by unusually warm weather. Organizers have taken extraordinary measures to keep the all-important snow from melting, but their slowly failing efforts to stave off the effects of climate change will look like foreshadowing in future history books. The halfpipe was the most visible victim — in a qualifying run, a female snowboarder coasting straight and level after pulling off yet another impossible trick hit a pool of meltwater and faceplanted. Concussed, she was helped off the pipe by a coach; she didn’t know where she was.
You might think the timed sports such as downhill skiing and speed skating would be “fairer” than sports where judges arbitrarily assign point values to performances, but no.
Consider Bode Miller, America’s greatest male skier. Like White, Miller qualified strong, but on his final run, clouds flattened the light, making surface detail difficult to discern on the artificial snow. Miller was undeterred, and, with his skis roaring across the ice like jet engines, he had the best time on the top of the hill. Then he hit the biggest jump — known as the Lake Jump because it makes skiers think they will fly off the mountain and land in a lake two miles below — and a random gust of wind made him soar slightly too high. He finished a statistically insignificant 0.27 seconds behind the leader, landing him out of the medals. Perhaps he can take some solace in the thought that the very act of trying to time events down to the hundredth of a second was exposed as folly in 1905 when Albert Einstein revealed that the illusion of simultaneous events is a trick the universe plays on us.
Even the on-air talent is not immune to Sochi’s cruel sense of humor. Bob Costas, apparently broadcasting from Superman’s Fortress Of Solitude, battled an increasingly gruesome case of pinkeye until he woke up blind and had to hand off to corporate tool Matt Lauer. Nor could one take solace in the jovial, zen sport of curling, where one match was decided by an errant bit of carpet fiber that had landed on the ice, diverting a rock at a crucial moment.
For every winner, there are dozens of losers, separated only by random quantum fluctuations. And yet still they come, Olympians on skates, skeletons, and snowboards, to hurl themselves down mountains and break the only bodies they will ever have against uncaring ice. As I write this, freestyle skiers are flying off a suicidal ramp, gyrating wildly in the air, and, almost to a woman, crashing into the desperately groomed snow below.
The only thing worse than suffering Sochi’s slings and arrows is not trying. Consider Evengi Plushenko, Russian figure skater, the biggest sports star in his country of 143 million. The 31-year-old battled through a spinal injury to help bring the Russians their first gold medal of these games in the team competition. As he took the ice for the individual competition, the hometown crowd gave him a standing ovation. But, instead of beginning his routine, he turned furtive circles, grimacing. Finally, he went to the judges, leaning heavily on their table to relieve his injured back as he withdrew from competition. He shook off coaches’ efforts to support him as he disappeared beneath the bleachers, inconsolable.