Redemption, Resilience & Resetting at the 2018 Winter Olympics

Shiffrin slalom in Pyeongchang
Mikaela Shiffrin shrugs after 4th place slalom, photo from CNN

The word that gets thrown around a lot at the Olympics is ‘redemption.’ I think it’s ‘resilience’ or ‘resetting’ – we all know what it’s like to have to pick yourself up, get over it, and continue on.  …the one instance that gets me more than anything is what the speed skater Dan Jansen was able to do. It took him four Olympic Games, and he was a magnificent skater. We all knew how hard he had to work…those are the stories that get me more than just about anything, that you’re gutsy enough to try again.
–Mary Carillo, NBC Olympics commentator

Redemption is about the story. Resilience is about the athlete.

People who write about sports like to turn competitions into stories–myself included. Descriptions are thrown around loosely like Cinderella Story, King of the Half-pipe, Queen of the Slopes. It shows how closely viewers liken these events to fairy tales and hope for fairy tale outcomes.

Those who remember Dan Jansen’s story probably still think of it as the quintessential happy ending. Jansen was the best speed skater in the world, but suffered one calamity after another in his Olympic quest for a medal. In 1994, in his third Olympics, he finally won the gold medal to his relief and the relief of the whole world.

In Pyeongchang, viewers saw that same kind of resilient spirit in the pairs figure skating. Aliona Savchenko and partner Bruno Massot of Germany were in fourth place after the short program. Two bronze medals for Savchenko in five Olympics were a great achievement, and a reflection of being oh so close. Trying for a win was beyond difficult, given that the quad salchows and twists being executed by the Chinese and other younger pairs were out of reach for Savchenko at 34. Still, the German pair skated a perfect free program then watched the other pairs make mistake after mistake. When her gold medal was announced, Savchenko broke down and tears of redemption streamed down her face.

Yet, redemption isn’t just about winning, and bouncing back isn’t only about the top of the podium.

Resilience vs. Expectations

Mikaela Shiffrin has been the best slalom skier in the world for the past five years. With four slaloms among the five races on her list, the media started casually commenting about multiple medal chances. Given the athletic performances of people named Bolt and Phelps (or Bjorgen or Fourcade) in our collective memory, we start assuming that everyone can just rip off two or three golds, as if it’s just become commonplace. Talk about fairy tales!  Expectations become the monster under the bed.

Shiffrin, 22, still has one more event to participate in after capturing a gold medal in the giant slalom last week. She’s expected to participate in Friday’s combined event after deciding to withdraw from Wednesday’s downhill race due to scheduling issues. These Games haven’t gone according to plan for Shiffrin as she failed to medal in her signature event – the slalom (30 career World Cup wins) – and now comes the distraction of her boyfriend getting bounced out of South Korea.
–Brett Bodner, New York Daily News

Even a gold medal in the Giant slalom wasn’t enough for some writers. The next day, best-slalomer-in-the-world Shiffrin threw down outstanding runs but then so did Hansdotter, Holdener, and Gallhuber, the ones who literally grew up in the Alps. They shushed by Shiffrin to take the gold, silver, and bronze. One day earlier, Shiffrin lay encrusted in the snow, sobbing with joy over a medal; now she could only shrug. Fourth best out of 78 skiers in the world is no crime. Only 23 years old, she laid her heart bare on Twitter to reveal a deep understanding of what it’s like to train and win, to fall short and fail, and to keep trying.

That is real. That is life. It’s amazing and terrifying and wonderful and brutal and exciting and nerve racking and beautiful. And honestly, I’m just so grateful to be part of that. That is so much greater than Gold, Silver, or Bronze. We all want a medal, but not everyone will get one. Some are going to leave here feeling like heroes, some will leave heartbroken, and some will have had moments when they felt both– because we care.
–Mikaela Shiffrin on her 4th place in the slalom

Because heavy winds in Pyeongchang caused schedule changes that stacked the races up, Shiffrin pulled out of two events to focus on one last try in the alpine combined–today. Maybe she’ll win; maybe she’ll come in fourth; maybe she’ll miss a gate and DNF.  Whatever happens will be fun to watch. Whatever happens, she’s won already.

Resilience and Bounce-back Within the Race Iself

Norway has blitzed other countries in the Olympic medal count, as they typically do. But in their “Super Bowl” race, the men’s 4×10 cross country relay, they’d only won in three of the last 10 Games, and not since 2002.  The relay is grueling–well, it’s cross country skiing, which is always backbreaking– but the 4×10 is like watching four elite runners do 5ks runs back-to-back. (Imagine the Olympic Cycling Road Race was a relay, who wouldn’t want to see that?) As a relay, the team has to strategize about who skis the anchor leg and whether to hang with a group or go out fast.

Norway yearned for a win but had been upended by the Swedes and the Italians several times. And the OAR Not Russian* team had 21-year-old speedster Denis Spitsov in its final leg. They also had cagey Andrey Larkov as their opener who immediately showed the OAR strategy because, as the race started, Larkov took off and built up a huge minute plus advantage before the first leg was done. Building up big leads can demoralize the other teams. It requires resilience for the other teams to respond. They have to work together. That’s what Norway, Italy, and France did; they chased down the Not Russian team by leg three.

Norway passes OAR in 4x10km relay
Johannes Klaebo says See ya later to Denis Spitsov on his way to winning the 4x10km Super Bowl for Norway, photo by NBC Olympics.com

Arguably, the racer that gets passed might also be done for the day. It requires resilience–if you’re the one chased down–to bounce back. That’s what OAR then did. The gap wasn’t much by the time leg four had started, and, by then, team Italy was out of gas. Spitsov, the anchor, pushed himself and his team back in contention by catching up to and tucking himself in behind Norway’s Johannes Klaebo. Both had young, speedy legs–what Americans would probably call hot dogs–both had already won medals in the Games. Norway had bounced back in the race at least once, but so had OAR. As the two played cat and mouse around the three final laps, leaving the other countries to duke it out for third place, they slashed up the hills and zipped down the curves. Until, with about a kilometer to go, Klaebo said See ya to Spitsov and put his legs into another gear. Gold for Norway, and silver for OAR. No remorse for either.

Falling Holds the Seeds of Success

Bohannon Olympic Men's Aerials
Mac Bohannon misses landing in Men’s Aerials, photo by Salt Lake Tribune

We joke about the skaters missing jumps, but when competitions are built on executing athletic spins and swirls flawlessly, then bigger scores require bigger tricks. Winning means doing something harder. Trying to win raises the likelihood of falling.

More big air and half pipe snowboarding and skiing events in these Games have allowed us to see incredible acrobatics. Imagine how many times these athletes had to fall in practice just to learn a trick, then perform it landing upright. Then, try to fly higher to gain more points, and still land on your feet. In the men’s ski aerials, the tricks got progressively harder and the falls got more … let’s call them spectacular.  Ukraine’s Oleksandr Abramenko’s gold was for performing a quadruple-twisting triple back flip. Perfectly. With a perfect landing. How many times did he fall during training?

In late 2016, US Figure Skating launched a campaign to celebrate vigor in moment’s of adversity, called #Getup. Gold medal figure skater Scott Hamilton was the perfect spokesman, a survivor of cancer and brain tumors. He put it into clear perspective.

If you didn’t fall, you didn’t try. I fell 41,600 times. What do you do? Well, you get up 41,600 times.
–Scott Hamilton

Resilience & Redemption Have Many Definitions

There’s falling and getting up. There’s bouncing back from adversity and injury. That also carries different meanings for different people. The men’s figure skating competition had it all on display.  Yuzuru Hanyu won the first back-to-back gold medals in the sport in seventy years. Hanyu was so severely injured back in November, he missed his country’s Trials. He hadn’t skated much over the winter and didn’t participate in the Olympic team skating event. As he took the ice for the short program, however, he demonstrated why he’s broken figure skating point records. He was sublime. When the last skater finished the long program, and Hanyu realized he had won the medal that all of Japan expected him to win, his tears of redemption–of resilience–were as genuine as anyone’s.

High expectations also sat on 18-year-old Nathan Chen’s shoulders in the competition on the opening weekend. After being labeled by U.S. media as the Quad King (fairy tale words again!), he faltered. Again in the individual short program, he fell in all three of his quad jumps. Seventeenth place. Out of it. No chance for a medal.  Knowing he would have four years to chew over what happened, he bounced back out on the ice for the men’s long program and hit six quads–one more than was in his program–and a new Olympic record. He won the long program and finished in a respectable fifth place. Better thoughts for the next four years.

Adam Rippon, Pyeonghchang 2018
Adam Rippon after his team skate, helping to win a bronze medal, photo by ABC News

Then, there’s Adam Rippon, who finished in tenth place. Rippon had been a middle of the pack skater for a dozen years, named as an alternate for Vancouver in 2010, but missing the cut for Sochi in 2014. He had talked openly to the media about struggles with money, with training, with having enough food. He was the first openly gay athlete to be named to the U.S. Olympic team and had pre-Games media spats with homophobic politicians.

Despite the distractions, he took the ice for Team USA after Chen missed his jumps and helped scrabble out a bronze medal with a beautifully artistic, if not quad-filled, program. On the interview circuit in the days following, he entertained interviewers with a quick wit and a sharp tongue. (“How do you explain your success?” “I can’t explain witchcraft.”) TIME magazine declared that he won the Olympics. In the grand scheme of twenty years of skating, traveling, falling, arguing, starving, bitching, missing out, and squeaking by, Adam Rippon’s tenth place was one of the greatest tenth place finishes ever.

At the end of the day, a gold medal is an outstanding achievement among the best in the world. So is a medal. So is finishing just off the podium, or in the top ten. Or gaining a record or a new personal best. Or finishing the race. Starting an Olympic competition. Racing to qualify for the Olympics. Training to try to qualify.

Or just training and falling down and getting up, one more time.

 

 

*OAR, the Olympic Athletes from Russia, are competing under the Olympic flag due to their country’s massive doping scandal. However, many commentators continue to call them “the Russians.” My solution has been to label them the Not Russians.

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”

Figure Skating’s Trail of Broken Dreams

I Tonya movie still, broken skate
I, Tonya
courtesy of Entertainment Weekly

The Olympics start in nine days, but this is not–strictly speaking–a post about the Olympics. This is a reflection prompted by seeing the movie, I Tonya, which cleverly insinuated itself into movie screens early enough to put itself in Oscar contention for 2017 but late enough to be seen right before the start of the Pyeongchang Games. The mockumentary-style film is worth seeing as a drama even if you’re not a skate fan. It also reveals the quirks in skate judging that result in odd results, perhaps to Harding, but to so many more that Olympic skate results are practically a conveyor belt of unfair outcomes.

Bashing Someone’s Hopes

Margot Robbie is terrific as Tonya Harding*, the powerful but feisty skater who won the U.S. Nationals but wanted more. Her manipulative and abusive husband launched a plot to scare her competition and his cretinous cohorts improvised with a crowbar to Nancy Kerrigan’s knee. Harding became a national joke and an international disgrace. I thought the film clearly showed Harding’s culpability in covering up the plot after the fact, lying to the FBI, and suing to keep her Olympic spot.

But afterward I heard some say that they thought the movie showed Harding was robbed, that she should have won a medal, shouldn’t have been pilloried by the press, and deserved more. Harding’s interview with the New York Times this month suggests she still thinks she was mistreated. The film–assuming its accuracy–does make one thing clear: when you are abused by your loved ones, as Harding was by her mother and husband, you come to feel that the world is against you and that you bear no responsibility for whatever happens. Continue reading “Figure Skating’s Trail of Broken Dreams”

Medal Counts — Bogus and Real

I’m as big a supporter of national pride as anyone, but the constant blaring of Olympic Medal Counts reminds me of that phrase “ugly American.” Since we fielded the biggest team by about 20%, and devote massive resources to sports, the statistic seems pretty crass. Raw volume numbers under those conditions are rarely a reflection of anything beyond size. I wondered whether there might be more fair ways to address medal performance.

As of Tuesday, the U.S. had won 85 medals, 28 gold. But how about if we adjust for the number of athletes, population, or resources? Numbers people would want to know these things. Craig Nevill-Manning has created a lovely site, medalspercapita.com, which did much of this work for me.

Medals Per…
When you start looking on an adjusted basis, small countries—with a small denominator—pop up at the top. (Also, note that a weighted medal count, with points for medal type, is most useful). Grenada with its one medal, a silver by the amazing Kirani James, leads with that one medal in medals per capita, per team size, and per GDP. Kirani won the 400 in London and was heavily favored; in one of the great races of these games, Wayde van Niekierk of South Africa blazed ahead of him and former Beijing champion LaShawn Merritt in world-record time, the only medal ever won by a runner in the outside lane, unable to see anyone behind him the entire race. James’s silver medal puts Grenada “tops” in several medal counts, when adjusted for size. Continue reading “Medal Counts — Bogus and Real”