The Winter Olympics worth the time and money? Absolutely

In the requisite song and dance awash in cheers and tears, the Winter Olympics end, leaving behind more questions than answers.

Chief of which is: “Are these glorious games any longer worth it?”
The music fades and all the marvelous kids scatter to the winds, leaving their gracious host wallowing in a billion dollars of debt. Proponents of the Vancouver games argue you can’t put a price tag on the spectacular promotion the virgin wonderland of British Colombia accrued from having the world at its feet for a fortnight.  But less sentimental skeptics counter that it will take a couple of centuries of hotel taxes and tourist tips to balance the books.

When will the Games run out of venues willing to play the role of sucker in exchange for a little fleeting limelight? Ah, now that is the question, but it is not the only one that’s crucial.

For then there is NBC, without whom the Vancouver opus would have more resembled the pleasant little eight-day jamboree in St. Moritz in 1948. The Peacock paid heavily for the sin of giving the world 16 lusty days of merrymaking to escape its miseries. As a reward, they got pummeled by the critics and second-guessed even by the athletes, many of whom they were glorifying well beyond merit. For toppers, the network, which has not been wallowing in the customary immense profit of late, lost a cool quarter of a billion bucks.

Now it’s fashionable to knock television networks, and they are truly run by voracious robber barons, rather unlovely as a breed. But the level of art and skill that they’re capable of weaving is nonetheless brilliant and these Games testified superbly to all that.

Yes, it was contrived at times and manipulated to fit the whims of NBC’s preferred demographics and arbitrary about what it featured and when.  If you happen to prefer ice hockey over snowboarding, you might have been especially offended by all that. The battalion of commentators were also too patronizing of the stars, too many of whom are spoiled brats, and too jingoistic with their incessant beating of the drums of the American jock hegemony, a shameless capitulation to the urgings of ratings and revenues.

Yet if all that’s true, so, too, is the bottom line. The coverage was fabulous! Nor should you for a moment under-estimate the Herculean effort that produced it. Maybe the great unwashed don’t appreciate all that, but everyone in the business does.

Still the question – and it may be the biggest one – lingers, maybe even broods over the future of these spectacular festivals. How much longer will American television networks be willing to swallow $250-million losses for the professional pleasure and prestige that covering the Olympics brings to them?  Take away the huge network investment and you have an event that would be instantly gutted, and don’t look to that marching chowder society, the International Olympic Committee, to make up the difference. This much is certain. The networks won’t tolerate the madness much longer.

Otherwise the Games were as usual a nice escape, especially given the alternatives of late February. Yes, the stars glittered here and there, as expected. But more pleasing were the inspired works of those from whom not so much was expected, like the American bobsledders, and Nordic skiers, and especially, in the end, the hockey players.

Above all, it’s the great and largely anonymous characters from all corners of the globe who have the grit and guts to strive for medals in things like the 31-mile cross-country race that deserve the greatest tributes. That ordeal is beyond grueling; it’s the Death March of Sport.  Consider that in the Vancouver pageant’s next-to-the-last magic moment, a Norwegian bested a German for the gold by three-tenths of a second with a Swede finishing third just seven-tenths of a second later. Three men, who must be from another planet, raced 31 miles on skis and they all finished within a span of one second. Now that is what these games are really all about even if few noticed except the good burghers of Norway, Germany, and Sweden. At the Olympics, it’s always more pleasing to see an unknown kid from Sheboygan or Dusseldorf outshine some hotshot off the cover of Sports Illustrated. Pleasing, too, were such items as Canada winning the most Gold. It was a proper reward.  And you had to like the Scandinavians getting their share of the loot.  Keep in mind; they invented most of this stuff.

It will not soon be forgotten that these Games were marred by tragedy with the death of the Georgian luger hours before the opening. But they also deserve to be   remembered for the many notably courageous efforts displayed. The gallant performance of Canadian figure skater Joannie Rochette, who glided to a bronze mere hours after losing her mom, was something Hollywood at its most audacious would not have dared contrive.
There were dozens of examples of athletes overcoming odds that were unfair, even cruel. Among the best was the Slovenian skier who fell into a gully, breaking five ribs while puncturing a lung. Yet she insisted on finishing. Demanded it! A day after taking one of the scariest falls in Olympic history, a near-catastrophic tumble in the women’s downhill, Swedish legend Anja Paerson, with nary a whimper, skied to a bronze in the super combined.

When aimless dreamers utter tender platitudes about “the Olympic spirit,” they are not thinking about the glamor of Lindsey Vonn or Apolo Anton Ohno’s bevy of medals. Rather it’s the Slovenian cross-country skier we never got to know and will never see again, and Ms. Paerson of Sweden, and those Nordic cross country blokes that they have in mind.

And then there was the hockey!

Yet another of the lingering questions concerns the matter of whether we’ll ever see the likes of it again and the answer is, “probably not.” The NHL is exceedingly reluctant to get involved in the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics in Russia. If they back out, they’ll get crucified by the American sporting public, who proclaim themselves hockey fans for exactly two weeks every four years, and by the American sporting media, which delights in using the NHL for a punching bag.  

But reasonable people should concede that the league, which is hardly booming, pays too heavy a price underwriting these capers while taking too great a risk contributing its most precious resource – all the best players – to somebody else’s cause in the middle of their regular season. No other professional sporting league would even consider it.  

No matter how all that works out, the epic ending in Vancouver becomes the stuff of Olympic legend. It was glorious. And you should stifle your latent nationalism and be glad the Canadians won. It is their game, not ours. Very few Americans can even begin to grasp how much it means to their culture. For you, a victory by the unquestionably gallant American kids would have stirred a mighty bellow and added a strut to your step, but after a day or two, the smile would have faded. For them, the moment is immortal.  

So allow Canada, a tidy gem of a country, and its ever gracious people, who demand so little, their due. For they richly deserve it. And be glad for the grand game of hockey. Its majestic moment brilliantly dramatized this central fact for the many who probably had no clue: No game is tougher to play so well or makes greater demands on the strength, skill, endurance, spirit, and courage of its performers.

People ask, “How come the NHL games they play every night aren’t like the gold medal game?” The answer is simple. If every NHL game were played at such heights of intensity and ferocity, the league would be wiped out in a month.  

Farewell, charming Vancouver. See you in four years in Sochi, hard by the Black Sea in the mystical mountain range of the Caucasus. And to the foremost question, “Is it all worth it?” The answer is a resounding “Yes!”