It’s all over but the drug testing.
The 2018 Winter Olympics, brought to you live and in living color from that Alpine powerhouse, South Korea, from their made-just-for-TV Winter Olympic site in Pyeong Chang, are history now and in a decade or so when we look back on them, here’s what we will remember:
American slalom skier Mikaela Schiffrin won two medals, a gold in Giant Slalom and a Silver in the Combined (slalom and downhill). She did not win a gold in her speciality—the Slalom.
Russia stayed true to form and had an athlete caught using prohibited substances, i.e. doping. It was a Curling participant. Who knew curling had such high physical demands. Most curling athletes look like they came to the competition pushing walkers.
The North Koreans and the South Koreans came together at the Winter Olympics to form a single Women’s Hockey Team. That’s an amazing step for two countries that have been at each other’s throats for years.
Shaun White won another gold medal in Snowboarding. White broke down after the victory, but he proved that, again, when the chips are down, he is the best in the world with a flat piece of carbon fiber strapped to his feet and upside down fifty feet up. A rare skill, indeed.
The Norwegians won the most medals and dominated cross country. It was expected. The Norwegians are the New York Yankees of Cross Country Skiing …..or is it the other way around.
The Dutch dominated speed skating. They usually dominate. It’s that Hans Brinker thing.
The biathlon remains one of the most fun and demanding of all Olympic sports, unless you are actually in the competition, in which case it’s a brutal exercise in cardio conditioning and nerve control. Pack a defibrillator if you’re new to the sport.
But—records and achievements aside—here’s what you need to really remember: the Winter Olympics are so much better than the Summer Olympics in every thing from skill level required to win a Gold to the type of equipment used to the facilities built to host the games. They are what Olympic competition should be: awe-freaking-inspiring of the how-do-they-do-that variety.
The Summer Olympics—we love them—are basically your junior high school field day blown up to…..Olympian…..proportions. Put up a media center for the internationals at Jugghead High and you’ve got the setup. Not too complicated. Rather easy to understand. Go fast, high, or long (if you’re a gymnast, do it while flipping).
The Summer Olympic games are built around basic physical abilities—running, jumping, throwing, and sometimes all three in one event. Adding higher skill level sports like golf and tennis and cycling and sailing doesn’t change the fact that great Summer Olympic athletes are born, not made. The newly added sports—golf, tennis, etc..—are in the games to “broaden the appeal”. Why does the appeal need to be broadened? One questions: when was the last time you paid to go to a track & field event.
Case esta closed, si?
The Summer Olympics are really the world-wide DNA sort for body type and muscle composition.
If you have weight lifter genes in your family, you can work into being an Olympic weightlifter. If that doesn’t pan out, you can move those refrigerators or work as a negative entry advisor at nightclubs (i.e. bouncer).
If you have running genes, you can run—short, middle, long, pick your distance.
If you are a jumper, you can go long (long jump), high (high jump or pole vault), or very short and fast (hurdles).
The Summer Olympics are all about native physical abilities—enhanced with lots of repetitive training.
There is no secret to being a good competitive swimmer: get the right genes and spend a lot of time in the pool. As for skills? Learn how to start like a pro and do a good flip turn. You already know how to breathe, but you will get much better at it if you swim. Otherwise….not that taxing for the skill set. Just put in the time –if you have the genetic prerequisites. It helps to be tall.
It’s not unusual for a high-school level swimmer to do two workouts a day and swim up to five miles over the two workouts, most in timed intervals. Competitive swimming at any level is about two things: a very high pain threshold and the mental ability to focus for hours doing the same thing you did for hours the day before. I have a friend who once taught the pre-med courses at a major university, and when I asked who the best scholar athletes were in his class, he said, without hesitation, “the swimmers”.
“They have a terrific ability to concentrate..”
What about the baseball players? “Nope”.
Basketball? “Not a chance…”
Football? “No way.”
And, even if you have the ability to sustain the mind and body-numbing workouts required in competitive swimming, you’d best have the swimmer gene, i.e. a great pair of lungs and a long body and wingspread (more distance per stroke), or no matter how hard you train, you will be left at the blocks. Ask Ryan Lochte. Trained like an animal. Fast, Strong. But…short for a swimmer. Michael Phelps busted his chops again and again and again. Bad gene pool for Ryan. It happens.
Running as an Olympic sport? You’ve either got it or you don’t. A great track coach—like my old pal Doc Shelala—could coach you up a few tenths of a second on your hundred or two hundred. But…..ultimately….you’ve either got a surplus of fast twitch muscle fiber or you’re running for sixth or seventh place. No amount of interval sprint work will make you fast enough to do anything but catch a better view of Usain Bolt as he goes past you for the gold. Sorry.
Olympic running events, from the marathon to the four hundred (one of the most testing of all the running events, since the really great ones run the 400 like it was a 100) are just high level contests of native abilities.
The training methods are well known to everyone at the world class level of running (pick your event) and when someone posts an usually great time, the first thing on everyone’s mind is “what’s he/she on?”. The East Germans made a science of chemically based performance enhancement—and won a lot of gold medals and every other kind of prize—in international track and field for years because they were the world’s best—the best ever seen—at doping.
East German track and field athletes, especially some of the women, were so loaded up on PEDs (performance enhancing drugs) that they almost glowed when they walked onto the field. Indeed, you know something is wrong, when a team’s female athletes spend more time shaving their face than their legs. But they won. And the whole German unification thing happened and the athlete doping labs went away (into Russia, apparently) and now the Germans have moved back to the pack. Slow happens.
The field events in the Summer Olympics? The same principals apply. Very big guys tossing heavy stuff in, hopefully, the right direction. Discus? Spin and throw it. It helps if you’re 250 plus. Javelin? Same drill but run straight and heave, with lots of fast twitch muscles for the run up to the throw. The Hammer? Give it a twirl and aim it away from the crowd. For training? Lift lots of weights, have a great diet, and toss stuff for hours a day.
And, yes, it’s not easy to do and I have only one friend who ever reached world class levels at discus, and he had minimal athletic skills—be certain that I am separating skills from abilities—in anything other than throwing the discus. But he could bench press a car.
At this point, it’s time to set the record straight, because if this article is read by the wrong type of people, i.e. those who are die-hard Summer Olympic fans, they might get the impression that I’m dissing the Summer Olympics and the athletes in them and get mad.
I’m just addressing the unpleasant little secret of the Summer Olympics by drawing a line to emphasize the difference between native athletic ability tuned up and athletic ability + athletic skills expertly applied to highly demanding physical events.
Other than the shooting sports, sailing, maybe fencing (maybe not, you don’t have to be good for more than a second or two in any of the fencing sports), and the newer Summer Olympic sports like golf and tennis, well, there are not a lot of high skill set sports in the Summer Olympics. It’s just basic athletics, nothing too complicated or fancy, except for gymnastics which is like gym class gone mad.
The Summer Olympics are mostly composed of running sports and, truth be told, I can run.
There are swimming sports and yes, I can swim.
There are shooting sports and I can do that too. Can I do it at the level of the folks in the Summer Olympics? Obviously not or you would have seen me on the podium instead of behind the laptop. But I can do all those things and so, most probably can you.
There is very little wow factor behind watching some skinny guy in a beanie run the steeple chase.
There’s even a “Speed walking event”, which looks suspiciously like what I see the young neighborhood moms doing each morning, without that weird little wiggle the Olympic walkers do. But really—walking as an Olympic sport? Might as well add in yard work as an Olympic sport if the athletic level requirement is that low.
But the point is…the Summer Olympics are full of events that I can do and you can too. And, they use only a modest amount of specialized equipment, none of it too technical. Running shoes, goggles, nose clips, tshirts, swim suits…well, those are available at Dick’s. Finding a discus, hammer, or javelin will take a little work, but you can have them shipped in… from China probably.
And, finally, let’s get to the staging of the Summer Olympics, just in case we need a tie-breaker for which Olympics is best (which we don’t). The reality is that we could stage a Summer Olympics at a well-equipped high school. In Mayberry.
You just don’t need a lot of special facilities, except to blow out your countries international entertainment budget.
You need a gym for gymnastics, weightlifting, indoor stuff; a track with a field for track & field events; and a swimming pool for the swimming competition. Tennis courts—to your right. Marathon—we’ll block some streets off. This is not big time facility-dependent stuff and 100 yards is 100 yards, whether its in L.A. or Paris. With the new summer Olympics no-spectators, fans or family rules, you just don’t need super-duper billion dollar facilities.
Really, it’s all pretty basic. The Summer Olympics are mostly about sports you can do in places you drive by every day.
Now let’s look at the Winter Olympics.
This is stuff you can’t do (mostly), using equipment you can’t afford and don’t know how to put on and its always staged in some place you have to drive to, not by.
The Winter Olympics are the high bar in high skill athletic competition. Having good genes helps (that fast twitch muscle thing again, unless you’re a 50KM cross country skier) but having a world class skill set will not only get you to the medal round, but also, quite possibly, save your life.
The Winter Olympics are full of very dangerous events, the type of stuff you see on an insurance application under the “you don’t do any of these crazy things do you?” section.
Look at it this way: there is no danger in running the 200M dash. A pulled hammie? Yes. You’ll get over it.
A mistake in the Alpine Downhill? You can not only get seriously hurt, you can get even more seriously dead. It happens.
Going down an ice covered hill at 90MPH on a pair of carbon fiber sticks is something that will keep your attention or take away your mobility (or mortality) if you don’t have both the native athletic ability and the highly specialized skill from training to cope with the unknown that’s waiting just one millisecond in front of you. The downhill is deadly. That’s part of the fun—and attraction to us as spectators: we just can’t do that…at least not intentionally.
The 100 M dash track isn’t icy, doesn’t have bumps, and isn’t slanted. There are no grooves cut in the track to pull you off course. Wind is not life threatening.
Not so in the Downhill, or the Giant Slalom, or Slalom.
These sports require quick reflexes, huge reserves of power (to pull control back when the hill or a rut has taken it away), lightning fast recalibration of the right line through a given course, and major cohones to keep pointing downhill when all of your self-preservation instincts are saying to ease up, just so you can see another day. It helps if you have thighs the size of an armchair to bail you out from your inevitable mistakes.
A world class slalom or downhill skier is a very finely tuned athlete who has developed an amazing skill set. Running the downhill or the slalom requires a lot more technical ability than running the 400m. One (the 400) is simple: do a lap of the track as fast as you can. The other requires mastery of high-tech equipment (the skis); the ability to sort out snow and weather conditions on the run; precise turns under international pressure; stamina and balance and tight focus for a what seems like-to the competitor-an eternity.
Downhill skiing vs. the 100M dash? Running straight versus turn for your life? Right. It is, in terms of athletic complexity, no contest.
But it’s not just Alpine skiing that makes the Winter Oympics tougher. Look at the biathlon. Ski up and downhill on skis about as thick as chopsticks, stop and shoot at a teeny-weeny target and don’t miss because if you miss, you have to ski an extra lap. Repeat. Any sport that combines firearms with Scandinavians has a certain level of inherent danger. Especially if they’ve been out the night before.
The skiing portion of the biathlon is difficult enough to master (cross country skiing is a natural sport only if you were born into a Norwegian family), but the shooting component adds another level of complexity. Plus—you only have a given amount of time to squeeze off all 10 required shots. So…ski the 400, then slow your heart rate to the point you can effectively aim and fire…and don’t miss. Then do it again. The biathlon is excruciating mentally and physically. There is no equivalent in the Summer Olympics.
Ice Skating? Not natural. This is another Olympic sport that is awe—and injury—inspiring.
First, you must have the balance of a high wire walker, then total command of spatial awareness (spinning around, on the ice or in the air is no easy thing to pop right out of), enough muscles to launch the triple toe loop, combined with enough muscles to soften the landing so that your knee caps don’t pop out into the first row of spectators when you land. And—don’t dress warmly for the event, either. In the last Olympics, two of the female contestants had various parts of their flimsy skating costumes fall off or fail. Didn’t faze ‘em. They kept right on spinning.
In the Summer Olympics, the high jumpers land in a big bag of foam. In the Winter Olympics, a figure skater lands on a surface as hard as a concrete parking lot when they fall. No contest. Plus, the ice skaters do most of their routine backwards; high jumpers go backwards only when clearing the bar using the “Fosbury Flop” technique.
What about speed skating? Isn’t that just a winter version of sprinting? Not quite. First you have to learn how to skate, then how to carve turns, and then how to do it all at racing speeds. Plus, in short track you need to master the elbow takeout of a fellow competitor. Skating requires more balance, athletic ability and tactical skill than running, which requires only foot speed. Ever seen a 100M sprinter fall over?
You can run. And thus you are not amazed when you see someone run fast.
Can you skate? You can’t. I saw you at the mall rink and I had to cover my eyes. You get the point.
Ski Jumping? Oh my. Nothing even close in the Summer Olympics. Nothing. This is both a great media event and a test of man’s ability to deny the potential of obvious doom if he messes up (think ABC’s “Wide World of Sports “ famous opening sequence).
Snowboarding? No equivalent in the Summers…..we hear that skateboarding is going to be present in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics so maybe there will be a half-pipe event but until then? Nada. You try dropping into a Winter Olympic half-pipe and pulling off a few 720s without stuffing yourself, painfully and totally, into the sides of the pipe. Forget about it.
And, that brings us to ice hockey. Maybe—from an athletic point of view—one of the most demanding of all sports and certainly—from a skill set point of view—the most demanding game of them all. Skate like a figure skater; have the eye/hand coordination of a world class tennis player so you can move a froze puck of rubber from one end of the ice to the other without looking at it and then passing or shooting while on the move, all the time avoiding being lit up at mid ice with a hip check or crammed into the boards. There is no equivalent to ice hockey in the Summer Olympics. It is THE high athletic ability/high skill game.
Is there a Summer Olympics equivalent to the bobsled? Four guys pushstart a thousand pound sled that goes down a tight, iced-up track, with one guy driving and the other three praying. If you do a good job as a driver, you might end up on the podium; if you do a bad job, your sled might end up upside down and sliding out of control all the way to the bottom.
But bob sledding is safe compared to the luge. The luge is college-level cafeteria-tray snow-hill sliding on steroids. Lay down—feet first on the luge, head first on the skeleton– on the tray, push off, and hope that you have the reflexes and internal GPS to keep it all upright all the way down. Successful luge competitors are noticeable by their lack of surgical scars and over-developed right arms, strengthened through years of crossing themselves before a run.
These “sliding sports” have no equivalent in the Summer Olympics.
And, finally, let’s play the facility card. You can stage the Summer Olympics—most of the big events—at your neighborhood high school. But you have to have some major facilities for the Winter Olympics. First, you’ll need mountains. Then a couple of ski jumps (very expensive to build and maintain); an ice rink; slalom, GS, and downhill courses; a half-pipe; a shooting range with a cross country course close by for the biathlon; special runs for free skiing contests and another huge and special jump for snowboard aerials; a bodsled/luge/skeleton run. You get the point….these type of facilities are not just laying around at Jugghead High.
And, of course, snow, and plenty of it.
The Winter Olympics are serious sports and they require serious and expensive facilities with lots of maintenance issues. Recently, because the Winter Olympics have been staged in countries not known for their alpine skiing heritage (Russia? Korea?), snow making is required. Or, the snow is “brought in”. Hmmm. Sounds expensive to moi.
Track & field maintenance requirements? Keep the track clean and mow the field. Done. You can do it yourself.
The 2020 Summer Olympics are next on our flat screens and, as always, we will enjoy the sprints and the swimming relays and some of the gymnastics.
We will get to see the world’s best pure athletes—running, jumping, swimming, throwing things—at hopefully their finest, undrugged, best. We will root for the home team and scream when our guys don’t deliver.
It’s a good show.
But it’s just filler, until the very best Olympic competition comes around again: the Winter Olympics, the ultimate combination of athletic ability and sports skills, the Olympics with lots of high tech equipment, featuring people doing amazing things we would never even consider doing unless forced to at gunpoint, staged at athletic sites whose cost to build is so expensive, it can bankrupt a country.
Now, that’s what the Olympics are all about.