Picking Splinters: Finding the Epic in the Olympics

The last thing the Vancouver Olympics need right now is another rain cloud, but I’m about to provide one. After five days of busts, bad weather, bruised shins and, sadly, a fatality, it feels we are on course for the worst Olympics ever.

There’s no way to avoid the inauspicious start. Before the flame had even been lit there was tragedy, with Nodar Kumaritashvili killed during a training run on a luge course reputed, and feared, as the fastest track ever.

All of my other gripes pale in comparison to Kumaritashvili’s death, so allow me a few moments of sincerity. The crash was ruled the result of “athlete error.” I can believe that. What I can’t believe is that it was “athlete error” that led to the fatality.

Falling from his sled was not what killed the Georgian luger. Being hurled over the sidewall of the track at 90 mph and into an exposed metal beam, one of several that lined the bottom portion of the track, did.

To me, the track, not the athlete, is liable for his death. I mean, no one thought that the steel pillars, mere feet from unprotected athletes traveling twice the legal speed limit of some highways, might be a problem? Seriously?

These days we go out of our way to guard against anything that’s even remotely dangerous. We pad the fences that line Little League fields so kids don’t catch their sleeves on them for Pete’s sake. I know, it’s 20-20 hindsight, but a little foresight would have gone a long way in this instance.

Perhaps it’s a result of the crash, but from Day One, these Olympics have suffered from a pall. Normally when I watch the Olympics I come away inspired. This time I can’t help but feel like my time would have been more enjoyable doing something else. Like my taxes.

The aforementioned bad weather kept skiers off the mountain, and two of the U.S.’s most recognizable athletes – Bode Miller and Lindsay Vonn, she of the ubiquitous bruised shin – out of the spotlight. With Vonn delayed, that leaves one of the few athlete stories NBC has taken time to develop on the sidelines. And sadly, that’s been common place in the network’s coverage.

I’m a huge sports fan, but it’s tough for me to get behind a lot of the events in the winter games. I don’t often see large Viking men furiously sweeping ice while gliding curling stones. Nor do I often ski down the street with a rifle strapped to my back. The neighborhood watch wouldn’t approve. The Winter Games don’t have a lot of “spectator sports.”  They need a little something extra to engage audiences.

Part of the reason I love the Olympics is because of the back stories of the athletes. Sure, it may be a little Hallmark Hall of Fame, but there are compelling tales out there. Like that of the Falls Church area’s own Anne “Grandma Luge” Abernathy, who overcame a brain damage-inducing crash and an empty bank account to compete into her 50s at the Torino Games in 2006. Those are the stories that win me over, the ones that eventually end up as Visa commercials.

Those stories, however, have been few and far between. Either because NBC found them too schmaltzy, or because their time-crunched schedule has prohibited them – but oddly allowed time for a segment on polar bears, an animal that lives nowhere remotely near Vancouver – the back stories have taken a back seat.

But I have hope that there’s one storyline that might be able to salvage the Games. It’s the story of a kid from Canada who was driven to tears by parents who heckled him for having the nerve to be a better athlete than their children. It’s the story of another kid from Russia, who embraces life, and blows kisses to the sky in memory of a brother that lost his own. I speak, of course, of Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin.

A gold medal hockey final between Canada and Russia would help redeem these Olympics. Not just because of the implications of the rivals’ NHL history – and future – but because of their past before the Penguins and Capitals.

These Games need this, just as the NHL did coming out of the lockout. Hopefully NBC has the good sense to embrace these incredible athletes, and the stories that turned them into the superstars they are.