The Yin & Yang of the 2018 Winter Olympics

Jokes about curling are as old as the hills in Pyeongchang. If using a broom is a sport, I’m an Olympian every day. Other fans make light of alpine skiing. How hard is it to fall down a hill? Some sports writers are openly suspicious of new sports, as even one Canadian columnist derided the two gold medals for Canada in mixed-doubles curling and team figure skating. But the Winter Olympics are splendiferous precisely because of all the contrast, across the athletes and among the sports. Hard/soft, high/low, old/young, male/female, fast/slow, down the hill/up into the air, taking off forward/landing backward and always landing upward, as if there was nothing to it.  This is the yin/yang of the Games.

Red Gerard gold medal slopestyle run
Red Gerard, Men’s Slopestyle Final, Photo by David Ramos

Contrast across Olympic Athletes

Take, for example, the gap in age across the snowboarding competitors.  17-year-olds Red Gerard and Chloe Kim of the U.S. are barely old enough to drive, and both now have gold medals to hang on their rear-view mirrors. Kim competed against Kelly Clark who, at twice Kim’s age, was seeking a fourth medal to add to her stack from half-pipe that began at Salt Lake City when Kim could barely walk. Even older than Clark is 39-year-old Brian Gionta, captain of the men’s hockey team, while Cheryl Bernard on the Canadian curling team is 51.

While the average age across Team USA is 26.5, averages by sport clearly vary. Most of the men’s snowboarders seem to have a “teen” in their age, while some of the best cross-country skiing and biathlete ages start with the number three. Nordic skiing and shooting require a hardiness of constitution and experience that is acquired over time, while flying and spinning off ramps may rely on the naivete of the young.

Cross-country skiiers have wiry lodge-pole pine bodies, with longer legs to power up the inclines. Meanwhile, as 5’5″ snowboarder Red Gerard stood atop the medal podium, the camera panned back to show his head even with the bronze medalist. Spinning upside-down apparently favors those who fold up easily for compact storage.

Among the pairs figure skaters, the height contrast has become extreme. Over time, the women seem to have grown shorter and the men taller. Alexa and Chris Knierim on the U.S. team are a foot apart in height, a gap repeated across most of the teams. For Duhamel and Radford of Canada, in search of a medal to add to their team gold, the height distance is 16 inches.

Mixed-doubles curling is new to the games, providing one of the few Olympic opportunities for women and men to compete together. Oddly enough, men and women have competed together in pairs figure skating and ice dancing for decades, but nowhere else in the Winter Games until 2018. (Fun fact: the first official Winter Olympics was 1924 but figure skating–including pairs–was part of the Summer Games as early as 1908).

Throwing a 40 pound stone 100 feet down ice to reach a four foot bullseye requires finesse as well as strength, particularly if the stone needs to “curl” around other rocks in its way. Curling is about strategy and power and has its own level of drama, an interesting comparison to its most opposite of sports: the downhill.

Contrasting Olympic sports: Downhill and Curling

Marcel Hirscher men's combined
Austria’s Hirscher wins men’s combined, photo by Michael Probst

What I remember most about my first winter Games–Innsbruck 1976–was the death-defying downhill of Franz Klammer, skiing “on the edge of disaster” as Wikipedia describes it.  Alpine skiers fly down the 2,700 foot Jeongseon mountain at 100 miles an hour. Popular Mechanics claims that dowhill racers subject their bodies to 3.5 Gs–more than space-shuttle astronauts during launch. As the events kicked off this week, strong winds have delayed the downhill and Super-G since unpredictable wind +100 miles an hour =concussions. Still, the men’s combined race–downhill combined with the slalom–found a calmer time in the schedule, and it provided plenty of drama.  Marcel Hirscher squeaked in to take the top spot with a clean downhill and a fast time in his slalom specialty, though he nearly lost a ski at the finish. Slalom and giant slalom racing seem like sports invented out of a drunken skier bet… OK I’ll race you down the mountain, but you have to beat me while zigzagging across the snow…

Curiously, curling also might have been invented in a pub, you beat me at darts? let’s go outside and see if you can hit that rock over there with this flat boulder… It seems as slow as the downhill is fast, yet the matches carry plenty of hold-your-breath drama. In the mixed-doubles round robin games, a tie breaker was required between Norway and China to see who would go to the semi-final, medal path, and who would go home. In the third end, China’s Wang Rui pushed out a Norwegian stone that she mistakenly thought hit the side barrier. Neither team could then remember exactly what happened, and they casually asked the crowd.

Anyone? Anyone see it? Was it in or out?
–Magnus Nedregotten, Norway mixed-doubles curling

When the replay showed in, the Chinese team replaced the stone without fuss. Strangely enough, on the next throw, China’s Ba Dexin grazed the stone with his broom while sweeping, and kicked the disqualified stone out himself. Then on Norway’s very next turn, Kristin Skaslien threw with too much finesse and the stone didn’t go past the red line, so that stone was also out. Crazy times for curling!  (China made a major mistake in the sixth end, giving Norway a 9-7 win. Unfortunately, Norway was upset by Canada and the non-Russian team and also ended without medals.)


Chinese mixed-doubles curling
Chinese mixed-doubles curling team, a tie-breaker heartbreak

Cross-Country v. the Halfpipe

Nordic skiing, like curling, can be an acquired taste. Americans don’t seem to have acquired it much, as medals for U.S. athletes are rare, while Norwegians have won over 100 medals in the discipline. (Norway typically equals or bests the U.S. in the winter medal count despite having 1/60 of the population). Well, Nordic skiing, after all, is practically named for the country.  But there is something about watching one racer chase another up a hill on skies that seems to defy gravity–at least to defy lung capacity–in an especially brutal way.

If you surmise that your Olympic nation is as strong or as cool as Norway, then you are suffering some sort of delusion. In your defense, it’s not like the Norwegians sit around up at the 59th parallel crowing about being the greatest. They just come to the harder, hardier version of Olympics, the Winter Games, bring along their majestic lungs and return home with medals by bushels.
–Chuck Culpepper, Washington Post

The Super Bowl for Norway is the 4x10km relay which will take place this coming weekend. The rivalry among Norway, Italy, Finland and a few other countries has been fierce, to say the least. Norwegians will never forget being upset in the Lillehammer games–in their home country–by the wily and practically unknown Silvio Fauner of Italy, who edged out the 12-time medalist legend Bjorn Daehlie by a half second. At the end of a nearly two hour race.

Americans have their own legend at the halfpipe, an event only 20 years old. Of the six gold medals awarded, Shaun White has half of them. After major mistakes from Sochi, White was back for perhaps the last time at 31? After a nearly flawless final run, with back-to-back 1440 flips required to best Japan’s outstanding Ayumu Hirano, White’s emotions overflowed, clear evidence that he did not take the win for granted. 1440, yes, that’s four revolutions. High above the heads of the photographers.

Shaun White gold medal 2018
Shaun White captures gold with two 1440s, photo SB Nation

Contrast in the Sport itself: the Biathlon

Perhaps no winter sport seems to contain the opposites within the very sport itself as much as the biathlon. A combination of cross-country skiing and shooting, the sport requires athletes to ski up and down a course with hundred-foot climbs and drops. Then they must stop–twice–to hit a target the size of a coin from half a football field away. While their heart is pounding and their chest is heaving. For every shot missed, they must ski a penalty lap. Lead changes can be dramatic. And brutal.


Women's biathlon prone shooting
Steady breathing in the women’s biathlon, photo by WNYT

The first target shot in the prone position is–allegedly–not as hard to hit. (Easy for you to say, Ms. Biathlete!) The second target, shot from a standing position, is the one that provides the heartbreak. In the men’s pursuit on Monday, a dozen men came into the standing line together, but, as shot after shot missed, medal chances disappeared like gunsmoke. While heavily-favored Martin Fourcade did win the gold, the race for the silver was a cat and mouse chase between unheralded Sebastian Samuelsson of Sweden and another favorite, Benedikt Doll of Germany. All three of the medalists shot clean on the last round. Twenty-year-old Samuelsson passed 27-year-old Doll on the last hill. For once, young legs beat wily veteran tactics.

With all this contrast, it seems particularly fitting that the image for the Winter Olympics–this specific winter Olympics–is South Korea’s flag which has at its heart the yin/yang symbol. This tension between moon and sun, dark and light, female and male, exemplifies the essence of balance in nature.

South Korean flag
South Korean flag — yin/yang at the center

So we see that balance, or the attempt to maintain that balance, across these sports. We get ten more days to watch thrown stones that bend in their path, uphill climbs and downhill soars that will push the limits of the body. Pucks that fly and skaters that spin, with the ultimate leap by those who finish in the front.

Samuelsson wins silver
Samuelsson of Sweden comes from behind for the silver in biathlon pursuit

Black American Pioneers on Ice and Snow

1st U.S. black American winter Olympians
Willie Davenport & Jeff Gadley, 1st African-Americans on a Winter Olympics team, courtesy of ESPN

The achievement was a historical footnote at Lake Placid, an asterisk among the ALL CAP raves for the “big” notables like Team USA’s hockey upset of the Soviets and Eric Heiden’s five gold medals. Willie Davenport and Jeff Gadley, push men for the four-man bobsled, were the first black Americans included on a U.S. winter Olympic team. As the 2018 Winter Olympics kick off in two days, the intersection with Black History month provides a perfect opportunity to discuss diversity and to celebrate notable achievements by athletes in the Games.

I was somewhat bewildered immediately in seeking information. First, while data on medal winners came easily, detail about the first Olympic participants was harder to find. Boxer George Poage was cited as the first black medal winner at the summer Olympics in 1904, only the third time the Games had been staged. Whether he was also the first participant is hard to determine. It took quite a bit of digging to ferret out the ESPN analysis that showed Davenport and Gadley as the first winter participants.  Secondly, it was a bit shocking to realize that while only eight years passed before African-Americans were added to the summer U.S. teams, a full 56 years occurred before blacks were included on TeamUSA in the winter. Continue reading “Black American Pioneers on Ice and Snow”

National Parks & America’s Pioneer Identity

I read biographies voraciously in the second grade; our school library had a whole series of them. Amelia Earhart, Betsy Ross, George Washington – I distinctly remember Thomas Jefferson hating to have his hair cut with a bowl on his head. The biography of Kit Carson said he was a pioneer and explorer who helped clear the west for the settlers. Isn’t that what we all learned? In 1993 (and two weeks ago), I was reading a National Park Service plaque about Kit Carson at Canyon de Chelly which explained that the site was the last stand for a group of Navajos before Carson put them on the Long Walk. The Long Walk? I didn’t remember reading about that part of his biography.

Fortress Rock, Canyon de Chelly, Site of Kit Carson’s campaign of genocide

Kit Carson, American Mass Murderer
Carson, according to modern bio excerpts, was a tireless explorer, traveled 20,000 miles on the back of a mule, spoke nine Native American languages, and married two native women. He fought off the Mexicans and Spanish in the acquisition of California for the United States. In the 1860s, the U.S. army put him in charge of clearing out the west, focusing on the Navajo, who refused to be relocated to a reservation. In 1864, he came into Canyon de Chelly, where hundreds of Navajos had lived for decades, just as the Anasazi had lived in the cliffs for centuries before. Carson attacked them as Spanish soldiers had done before him, and the Navajos climbed up into their hill fortresses for protection. Carson’s response was the euphemistic “scorched earth policy,” meaning he drove their livestock into blind canyons and slaughtered them. He burned all their crops, every last cornfield and melon patch. Then, he waited out the people until they came down, starving. He gathered them together – and other Navajos who had been captured – and drove these thousands of men, women, elders, and children 300 miles across Arizona into New Mexico to the Pecos River. That is the Long Walk. Continue reading “National Parks & America’s Pioneer Identity”

I Didn’t See That Coming

Why don’t we anticipate large scale events better? Giant hurricanes (again, the 3rd in ten years)…500 year floods (again, the 3rd in Houston in three years by at least one account)… the crash of the economy… the election of crazy people… the list is getting pretty darned long.  People’s inability to see the coming tsunami wave is analyzed quite well in a book I recently read: The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

The human mind suffers from three ailments as it comes into contact with history, what I call the triplet of opacity. They are:
a. The illusion of understanding…
b. The retrospective distortion…
c. The overvaluation of factual information and the handicape of authoritative and learned people
The Black Swan

Taleb’s book is only ten years old but already a classic. I read it on the mini-bus driving around the quiet hills of Ireland, and I can’t imagine a better way to absorb such an indictment of our human myopia. It’s very readable; there are some numbers in it, but mostly in the footnotes or the appendix. Most of it is anecdotes and stories, which is kind of ironic, since one of Taleb’s main points is that we rely on anecdotes to understand things because we can’t cope with the math. As it turns out, that’s probably okay, because we aren’t using the math properly anyway.

The Illusion of Understanding–Don’t Be the Turkey
One way Taleb says we fail to predict properly is in our inability to understand the world in front of us. The world is complicated and large; it’s hard to take it all in. As a result, we either (a) conclude that we can’t predict anything because it’s too complicated or (b) we rely on simply models and create quasi-statistical understandings entirely based on the present. These models fall apart if what our scope is limited. The best example of this is Taleb’s Turkey analogy.

The turkey, born on January 1st, for example, learns to look forward to the chef. The chef feeds him every day, lovingly popping the tastiest grains and morsels into his little mouth. For 330 days, he sees that chef come over and knows, from experience, that something good’s gonna happen.

Until it doesn’t. Continue reading “I Didn’t See That Coming”

Cinnamon: The Ordinary Exotic

20170809 spicedrawer

Spicy doesn’t mean what it used to mean when I was growing up. In the bland cooking from the midwest and the 1970s, spicy referred to garlic, pepper, and perhaps oregano. The famous “spicy meatball” Alka Seltzer commercial was both in praise of and a warning against partaking of strong flavors. Forty years later, Americans have come to embrace spice. We have spice trends – the hottest four spices in 2016 were apparently sumac, turmeric, mace, and za’atar – I don’t make this stuff up, folks. We are a literal melting pot of cuisines imported from so many cultures. But the most ordinary spice I grew up with also turns out to be one of the most medicinal, ancient, sought after, delicious, and versatile ones from around the world: cinnamon.

Cassia and cinnamon verum
Most savvy cooks know cinnamon is the inner bark from a species of tree. Some cooks (or expert Googlers) know the distinction between an herb and spice is that herbs come from the leaves and spices come from the seeds, barks, buds, or other parts of the plant. Cinnamon is grown by cutting the stems down to ground level every couple of years in a process called coppicing. Repeatedly cutting the stems leads to a thicker proliferation of new shoots, which is why groves of such small trees and shrubs are also called copses. When cinnamon shoots are harvested, the outer bark is scraped off and beaten off with a hammer, and the inner part pried off with a small crowbar; the inner bark comes off in long (meter) strips which dry in curled rolls called quills. Continue reading “Cinnamon: The Ordinary Exotic”