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.
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
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.