The Olympics Are Here, and Not a Moment Too Soon
On Sunday, I watched about 63 seconds of the Pro Bowl — and regret even that. As you can tell by the header (cool, right?) this will not be about the Pro Bowl, but let’s start there: The Pro Bowl is totally and utterly unwatchable, but it is instructive: The Pro Bowl shows you the strength of the NFL, the arrogance of the NFL and the mortal danger of the NFL all in one absurdly boring package.
The strength of the NFL is that anyone — and in this case “anyone” included millions and millions of people — would watch what was essentially the final minutes of a half-hearted practice you put on for school kids as a favor to the principal.
The arrogance of the NFL is that they would continue to have the Pro Bowl. The league has never had much shame about making people pay large sums of money for inferior products — see ticket prices for preseason games — but the Pro Bowl now sets a new annual low, featuring a ragtag collection of a few of the league’s better players going through the motions. The NFL must really feel its own invincibility to put this garbage on television.
And the mortal danger of the NFL is the obvious overriding factor of the Pro Bowl. There is one lesson and only one lesson from the Pro Bowl: Pro football is much too dangerous to play just for fun. Pro football is not a GAME in the way that baseball, basketball or even hockey are games. It’s a blur of concussions and thrills, broken bones and athletic miracles, torn ligaments and awe-inspiring teamwork, and you can’t have one without the other. It’s the one game in America, and perhaps the world, where commercial breaks are scheduled to allow teams to tend to their wounded.
So, no, you don’t play professional football for kicks. And so the only way you can put on a Pro Bowl — especially after an ever-lengthening season — is to tell players they are not allowed to tackle each other, bump each other or make any sudden movements. There was a time — when football was less perilous and the players needed the money — when you could play all sorts of football exhibitions. The Pro Bowl was a pretty big deal in Hawaii. A college All-Star team would face off against an NFL team. There would be a consolation game for third place in the NFL.
Those days are long gone. As one friend says, there was a time when Lawrence Taylor was a singular force of mayhem, a 6-foot-3, 240-pound terminator who could move at supersonic speeds and played with an inextinguishable rage.
Now each team has like four Lawrence Taylors.
Pro Football is gladiator combat. And the Romans, as far as I know, did not have any exhibition gladiator games.
So I turned from the Pro Bowl to Olympic ski jumping.
And boy was I glad that I did. It was a reminder of why — despite the countless horrors of corruption that the IOC perpetrates and the stomach-turning politics that led these Olympics to China in the first place — the Olympics will always fill my heart. I’ve been to 10 of them, and though some places were better than others (Sydney was almost literal heaven; Sochi not so much), and some had more memorable moments than others (see Gardner, Rulon, and Bolt, Usain, and Biles, Simone), each and every one took me to a different place from any other sport.
And as soon as I turned away from the Pro Bowl travesty and began watching the normal hill ski jumping, I remembered why.
I imagine many of you are old enough to remember the heyday of “The Wide World of Sports.” For those of you who are not, every week Jim McKay and company would go to some sporting event somewhere in the world, and you rarely knew what it would be. One week it would be like a Muhammad Ali fight. The next week it would be Evel Knievel jumping over a bunch of busses. The next week, like, Dorothy Hamill, would be skating.
Well, here, let’s look at a typical Wide World of Sports year — say, 1979 when I was 12.
Week 1: World Gymnastics championships.
Week 2: The Harlem Globetrotters.
Week 3: Alexis Argüello and Alfredo Escalera fight.
Week 4: The first race of the thoroughbred Spectacular Bid, who went on to win the triple crown.
Week 5: Phil Mahre breaks his leg at the World Cup giant slalom.
Week 6: World Figure Skating Championships.
Week 7: World Ski Flying Championships.
Week 8: George Willig’s attempt to climb Wyoming’s Devil Tower.
Week 9: World Table Tennis Championships.
Week 10: Monaco Grand Prix.
Now that’s a schedule. You couldn’t have that kind of '“Wide World of Sports” these days for about a million reasons (or many, many, many millions of reasons when you consider how expensive sports rights have become) but one thing is that American sports viewership has changed. If you look at all 10 of those completely different events, there is one thing that connects them all.
Every single week, “Wide World of Sports” gave us someone to root for.*
*Yet another problem with the Pro Bowl — what are we even SUPPOSED to be rooting for?
And that was what we wanted in 1979. This was long before every single game — including our kids’ Little League games — was streaming somewhere. This was long before we could go on-demand and see every nuclear Juan Martin del Potro forehand, every Shohei Ohtani home run, every Cristiano Ronaldo goal, every Steph Curry 40-foot jumper, every Connor McDavid breakaway, every Mikaela Shiffrin downhill run. We only got what “Wide World of Sports” gave us, so if they said, “OK, now you care about cliff diving,” we said in hypnotized tones, “Now we care about cliff diving.”
That feeling is all but gone because we get so much more now …
But it comes back for the Olympics. For a little while on Sunday, all I cared about was who was going to win the Olympic normal hill ski jump. It was truly wonderful.
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Let’s start with the joyous and wonderful fact that it’s called the NORMAL HILL ski jump. That is so great on two levels. One, it suggests that there’s something normal about any of this.
Hey, Gregor, where you going?
Oh, you know, just going to ski down that ramp and jump off the side of the mountain.
OK, that’s fine, that’s a perfectly normal hill, have fun.
Two, it tells you how daft you would have to be to go down the OTHER hill, right? I mean, when one is called the “Normal Hill” what is the other one called? “Irrational Hill?’ “Unreasonable Hill?” “You Would Need A Death Wish to Try This Hill?”
As it turns out, they simply call the other one “Large Hill,” which actually is kind of great too. It totally makes sense to name gigantic land structures the way you would name bags of M&Ms.
I started watching the ski jumping and went through my natural process of watching Olympic events, particularly dangerous ones like this. I spend the first few competitors getting my bearings, trying to figure out the rules, marveling at the athleticism and courage necessary. Let’s watch Poland’s Dawid Kuvacki go down the normal hill. Dawid is 31 years old, and this is his third Olympics. He has been jumping off mountains for more than a decade and when I tried to figure out why, I was led to this story in Polish, and when I hit “translate” it spit out this quote from his coach, Zbigniew Kilmowski:
“Dawid was a small meatball that always had buns in his backpack. Dad joked that he wasn’t thinking about training, only about these sandwiches.”
I think that pretty much says it all.
Anyway, to see Dawid ski down the hill, so assured, so confident, and then to see him take off and fly, the very picture of grace, it is pure astonishment. How do human beings do this? How do they find the courage? How do they develop such poise? They turn into birds! They soar like superheroes!
This wonder lasts for, at most, two more ski jumpers.
This is the problem with my brain and perhaps all of our brains. It’s hard to keep wonder contained.
It always happens. Every time. This isn’t just true of exotic and dangerous sports like ski jumping or diving or luge or snowboard superflying (or whatever it’s called). It’s also true of stuff like badminton and swimming and the long jump, stuff I KNOW I can’t do because I’ve tried it. I watch just two or three ski-jumpers and suddenly I’m the world’s biggest expert on ski-jumping. Suddenly, I’m like the Stephen A. Smith of ski jumping.
“Oh, wow, what a terrible jump Norway’s Marius Lindvik, looked like he was late on takeoff there.”
“What a choke by Evgenly Klimov, you’ve got to be kidding me.”
“Seriously, Constantin Schmid? How are you going to show your face in public after that display?”
“You were the FAVORITE, Karl Geiger? With that jump? How you ever got to be the favorite of anything is beyond my understanding.”
Of course, the reason Karl Geiger was the favorite is because he has won like a million World Championship gold medals and is also a champion ski flyer, which I guess is different*, and he has already medaled at the Olympics, and he has dedicated his life to becoming one of the very best in the world at this artform, which my little brain would understand except that the Olympics always scrambles it.
*It’s actually not different — it’s just that in ski flying, the hills are bigger. So I guess you have the Normal Hill, the Large Hill, the Supersized Hill, the XXL Hill, the Tacko Fall Hill and, finally the Ski Flying Hill.
In the end, the Normal Hill Ski Jumping came down to our favorite small meatball, Dawid Kuvacki, and Japan’s ski-jumping beast (his words), Ryoyu Kobayashi.
Before Kobayashi jumped, NBC showed the little dry-land training session that he does and it was — incredible as this might seem — even more remarkable than the whole jumping from NFL goalpost to NFL goalpost on skis. It was like a Rube Goldberg machine, only he was the ball. He would balance on a rubber ball, then jump over a hurdle and land on another rubber ball and roll to a giant roller skate and jump on that and then roll to another hurdle and jump over that while the giant roller skate rolled on its own and so on.
And here was the best part: Announcer Johnny Spillane — who competed in Nordic combined which, absurdly, is a combination of ski jumping and cross-country skiing (because one is not enough) — seemed, like, only MILDLY impressed. He made it sound like he used to do exercises like this himself, which leads me to consider the incredible possibility that there are a bunch of people all over the world who every day roll around rooms by balancing on balls and jumping on giant roller skates and basically living their lives inside a Hanna Barbara cartoon.
Kobayashi then nailed his jump — absolutely crushed it. It’s funny, his jump was like only a meter or two longer than the other guys’, and someone like me who knows absolutely nothing about the sport should not have been able to tell the difference. But, somehow, I could. It helped that NBC had a green line at the bottom of the hill as a marker.
But also, and I think this is what makes the Olympics so compelling and irresistible: There is some slight difference between the very best and the almost-very best. It should be imperceptible. But we as sports fans do perceive it. And that’s why we watch, I think. Here you have a bunch of athletes from around the world doing incomprehensible things — what could be more incomprehensible than people skiing down a mountain and them jumping? — and one of them is just the tiniest bit better at it.
Then we see that person, we see Ryoyu Kobayashi lift off and hover over the ground and stay in the air for longer than the Wright Brothers’ first flight and then land more smoothly than I do when I get out of bed and then ski triumphantly until the bottom of the hill and then turn the skis and spray snow everywhere and come to a perfect stop.
And, dammit, it just makes me feel the tiniest bit better about humanity.
The Olympics, man. Gets me every single time.