The good and the bad of Sochi
I awoke suddenly from my chair one evening recently and there they were, ice dancers Meryl Davis and Charlie White, pirouetting down the ice in perfect sync. But it wasn’t the syrupy Tracy Wilson calling the action. It was hockey’s uber-excitable Doc Emrick and I knew what was coming next:
“TWIZZLER!” blasted out Emrick in his best Stanley Cup finals style. “THE AMERICAN PAIR JUST TWIZZLED!”
Of course, that didn’t happen. Instead, it just goes to prove that even a fan like me can overdose on the Olympics, although I confess that I liked the ice dancing event — there, I said it — even if I have no idea why the Americans were judged better than the Canadians to win the gold medal.
The Games were wonderful television, despite the pre-competition concerns about incomplete venues and the fear that regional terrorists would spoil the event. The only real casualty in the 17 days was Bob Costas, who was sidelined for some of the telecasts with an eye infection.
Costas is the best. He has been for many years, and NBC had a great marquee lineup behind him that featured Matt Lauer, Mary Carillo, Meredith Viera, Al Michaels and Dan Patrick. Watching Patrick work along with figure skating analyst Johnny Weir and wide-eyed compatriot Tara Lapinski will go down in sports broadcast history.
Analysis of sports that most Americans know little about is an art form that was perfected by the late Paul Robbins, who made cross country skiing must-see TV in every winter Olympics. The hockey guys are fine; after all, they work the NHL regularly and know most of the players in the competition. Jeff Hastings has spent a lifetime as either a competitor or commentator in ski jumping. The same is true for Duncan Kennedy in luge. They would probably cancel bobsledding if John Morgan was unavailable for commentary. Former Olympic champion Scott Hamilton was excellent in figure skating, as always.
On the other side, I have no idea why former track athlete Lewis Johnson and Bree Schaaf have to share time in bobsledding. She, at least, knows the sport as a former Olympic slider. The cross country and biathlon competitions bring enough drama that it is interesting without words. The same is true of the skier- and boarder-cross events. I sometimes wish that, like football, they would mic the competitors. I’d like to know what they are saying when they are tips to tails at full speed in the race.
Slopestyle competitions were new to the Olympics this year, and Americans really cleaned up in medals in the early days of the Games. Analysis may have been helpful to the broadcast, but who will ever know because the tricks and moves are indecipherable to the layman even after video replay.
The Capital Region didn’t contribute directly to the American athlete roster this time around. The closest success stories to us were Andrew Weibrecht of Lake Placid, who sped to a surprise silver medal in the Alpine super-G, and Devin Logan of West Dover, Vt., who won silver in the women’s ski slopestyle event.
While our area may have been missing in the rank of competitors, two local guys had great success coaching American athletes.
Bill Enos, who grew up in Rotterdam and graduated from Schalmont High School in 1982, is coach of the U.S. snowboard slopestyle team that won two gold medals. Enos started out skiing at age 16 months at his family’s Maple Ridge Ski Center, and he’s been a part of the sliding sports winter scene ever since. The former pro-snowboarder now lives in Campton, N.H., and was head of the freestyle program at Waterville Academy until he took over the U.S. team two years ago.
A surprise for the U.S. at the games was the skeleton team, especially Noelle Pikus-Pace, who won a silver medal, and unheralded Matt Antoine, who won a bronze. The coach behind the athletes was Schenectady native Tuffy Latour who graduated from Linton High school in 1986. Latour, whose pedigree in the sliding sports dates back to his grandfather, who competed in bobsled for the U.S. in the 1948 games, has been a bobsled driver and later coach of the U.S. men’s and women’s bobsled teams, the Canadian bobsled team, and more recently, the U.S. skeleton team. He lives in Saranac Lake.
YESTERDAY’S NEWS — So long, Shaun White. Bye-bye, Shanni Davis. Both former U.S. gold medalists came into the Sochi Games with great expectations and both fell flat. White took spots in two events, then dropped out of one to focus on the halfpipe, in which he finished fourth. He was last seen from behind leaving the arena. Davis just didn’t have it this time around. Was it the racing suit? No one seems to know why. Davis finished way back in his best event, the 1,000 meters, and he didn’t do better at other distances, either.
FREE AGENCY — There is a lot to be said for athletes competing for the joy of the competition, and the honor of representing your country. So what do you think about American Vic Wild in the halpfipe parallel slalom, and short track speedskater Viktor Ahn, who won gold in 2006 for South Korea, winning two gold medals each this year representing Russia, where both recently became citizens. It all seems a little shifty to me, especially each day when national medal standings are announced.
MAROLT SAID IT YEARS AGO — Bill Marolt is retiring as head of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association after 16 years of raising U.S. Olympic results. He is known for his belief that the purpose of the Games is to win medals, not just compete. His program did that. The former Olympic racer leaves behind a roster that includes gold medalists Mikaela Shriffrin and Ted Ligety, silver medalist Weibrecht and very likely the currently injured Lindsey Vonn, who should become the all-time World Cup winner before she retires. With 59 wins now, she is just three short of the best ever.
DISAPPOINTING — As good as the boarders and skiers were at Sochi, the U.S. Nordic team was a bust. As veteran biathlete Lowell Bailey said in an interview last summer, all Americans care about in the Olympics is medals. And there were none this year. Bailey, in his third Olympics, won insider kudos for his men’s-best eighth-place finish. But it was no podium for him, or longtime teammate and training partner Tim Burke of Paul Smiths. The men’s ski jumpers were not expected to medal, and they didn’t. The women jumpers in their first Olympics were expected to be in the hunt for medals. They weren’t. And Kikkan Randall, who was thought to have a chance to be the first American woman ever to medal in Nordic, didn’t even qualify for the finals in her specialty — the 10K sprint.
SYMPATHETIC — It was his fifth and likely final Olympics, and Bode Miller has been a tough person to figure out over the years. For many, if this were professional wrestling, he’d be the villain. But NBC Alpine reporter and former Olympic medalist Christin Cooper changed all that with her harassing interview after Miller had tied for third in the super-G event. By pressing him, then pressing him some more, about his thoughts on the death of his younger brother last year, Miller broke down in tears. Now like him or not, Miller is a tough guy and a great competitor. He didn’t deserve what NBC served up.
FEEL-GOOD MEDALS — There are always great stories and new heroes that come out of the games. My picks for the three best this year are: Bronze: Effervescent Picus-Pace, who came back after a serious on-track injury and giving birth to two children to win a silver medal with her husband and kids looking on. Her joy was infectious. Silver: American slopestyle silver medalist Gus Kenworthy, who adopted local stray puppies that Russian officials had promised to eliminate from Sochi before the games. Gold: Canadian moguls gold medalist Alex Bilodeau, whose close relationship with his brother, who has MS, is an inspiring story. He will win this award for as long as he chooses to compete.
As always, the Winter Olympics was a great show. We have four years to rest before next time in South Korea.