Friday, February 17, 2006

Shot Rock at the Bonspiel
Sports talk radio has been buzzing today over comments made by Bryant Gumbel on HBO's Real Sports the other night.
Finally, tonight, the Winter Games. Count me among those who don't like them and won't watch them ... Because they're so trying, maybe over the next three weeks we should all try too. Like, try not to be incredulous when someone attempts to link these games to those of the ancient Greeks who never heard of skating or skiing. So try not to laugh when someone says these are the world's greatest athletes, despite a paucity of blacks that makes the Winter Games look like a GOP convention. Try not to point out that something's not really a sport if a pseudo-athlete waits in what's called a kiss-and-cry area, while some panel of subjective judges decides who won ... So if only to hasten the arrival of the day they're done, when we can move on to March Madness -- for God's sake, let the games begin.
Conservatives are going predictably apeshit over two things--first, claiming that Gumbel said Republicans are racists; and two, squawking that the same liberals who excoriated Rush Limbaugh for his comments about black quarterbacks a few years back are silent on Gumbel. The former is typical conservative word-twisting and the latter is typical conservative victimhood, and as such, both are worthless.

More puzzling to me is the claim that Winter Olympians can't be the world's greatest athletes if black athletes don't participate. If that's true, it's only as a matter of semantics. There are few black athletes in these Olympics because there are few black athletes in Norway, Sweden, Austria, Switzerland, and other places that dominate the Winter Games; there are few black athletes in the sports dominated by the United States, such as snowboarding, figure skating, and hockey. Gumbel's remark is a little like saying the national surfing championship can't really crown a national champion if nobody is entered from Nebraska.

The Mrs. and I have been watching the Olympics, albeit selectively. Our favorite event is curling. CNBC has been showing it every day, and it's replaced Seinfeld reruns on my late-afternoon viewing schedule. It occurs to me that curling probably offends Gumbel's sensibilities, because it's as far removed from the ancient Greek ideal as any Olympic sport you can imagine. Too bad he's not watching, because he's missing something you can get hooked on.

Curling is rather like chess on ice, with brooms and 40-pound rocks, and a touch of ballet tossed in. It looks easy, but it isn't--and I know, because The Mrs. and I visited our local curling club after the 2002 Olympics and could barely stand up on the ice, let alone do anything with the rocks. It's being described on TV by two Canadian broadcasters, Don Chevrier and Don Duguid, who make no concession to the fact that 99 percent of their viewers know little or nothing about the sport. They've been broadcasting curling for 30 years, and they describe what's happening without overexplaining it, which, counterintuitively enough, makes it easier to pick up both the rules and the nuances.

The most compelling thing about curling is that the curlers are as average as the people sitting on the couch watching them, if not more so. The American women's team is anchored by a pair of sisters, Cassie and Jamie Johnson, who look like people who would ring up your groceries or cut your hair. Another member of the American team, Maureen Brunt, from just up the road in Portage, Wisconsin, you'd never pick out of a crowd as a world-class athlete. In her form-fitting curling outfit, she's chunky. But she's an Olympian, too, every bit as accomplished as Sacha Cohen or Bode Miller. The American men's team is captained by a guy named Pete Fenson, who looks like the sort of guy who would run a small-town pizza restaurant--which he does. At the world-class level, sport is a small world. Curling is among the smallest: Half the American team members are from Bemidji, Minnesota. The American men's coach is Fenson's father.

Are these athletes any less worthy of recognition as the world's best because they aren't professionals, don't have endorsement deals, haven't spent their childhoods pampered and preparing for their Olympic moment--or aren't on a big-enough stage? In the end, their stories and their struggles are a lot more interesting than those of figure-skating divas or hockey professionals on holiday.

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