Backstory: Time to Turin out the lights
A reporter's five inviolate rules for watching the Olympics.
The closing ceremonies now concluded, I share with you the unabridged rules of the 20th Winter Olympiad: • Love every athlete equally. If you go to an event to watch a particular competitor or, heaven forbid, to root for them, that athlete will invariably crash or finish 67th.
• Never trust the signs in bus windows. Always repeat the name of where you think you are going to the bus driver. If he agrees or gives some manner of response that could be taken to mean "yes," get a second opinion.
• The people in the NBC jackets are probably prettier than you.
• The phrase: "I don't know Italian," or even "Non parlo italiano," has no effect whatsoever. Whoever is speaking will continue as before, gesturing wildly.
• Today will be gray outside. Tomorrow will be gray. Next week will be gray.
They are hard-learned lessons from the vain attempt to cover an Olympics at a time before cloning is available in a take-home kit. I have been from Pragelato to the Palavela, from Sestriere to San Sicario, and the overwhelming memory I have of these Olympics is that I have no overwhelming memory. All we in the American media hear over here is that no one is watching stateside. Perhaps you feel the same. In an Olympics that has claimed "Passion lives here," there has been a notable lack of it.
Like Salt Lake and Athens, Turin was supposed to have something to prove in these Games: that the city was more than its dour reputation suggested. Indeed it is, notwithstanding the drab winter weather. No one who has walked through its piazzas, overlain by centuries of ornamentation to resemble an enormous wedding cake, could begrudge Turin its beauty. But in the end, Turin seems content with what it is, thank you. So the excitement of holding the Games never quite kindled.
That's not to say this has been a bad Olympics. The competition has, at times, been spectacular. My Olympics is a collage of more intimate images - some as ecstatic as short-track speed skater Apolo Anton Ohno's smile as he crossed the line first in the 500 meters, some as infuriating as a Bode Miller slalom run.
It is a rule of the Games that wherever you happen to be, something terribly interesting is happening somewhere else - probably the place you decided against going that morning.
But that's the thing about the Olympics. If, for a moment, you can forget where you come from, and simply watch a race as if nations meant nothing, you can slip into the sublime anywhere. Watch the Austrians come down a hill that was designed as a torture chamber tilted to 40 degrees. Watch the Koreans flow like water through cracks in a wall of short-track skaters. Watch the Dutch skaters, mouths wide, sucking air like a jet intake. And you're never in the wrong place.
That's good, because it was often difficult to figure out where you actually were. According to every piece of literature I know, the events in the Alps were held at one of five venues: Sestriere, Pragelato, Cesana, Bardonecchia, or Sauze d'Oulx. That was hard enough to remember. Bardonecchia sounds like an omelet on the menu at the Four Seasons. Sauze d'Oulx has a "z" and an "x." What is this, Bosnia?
Then a bus turns up with a sign that says Rivet. Huh? Rivet, I have come to believe, is actually Pragelato, though no one ever told me this. Likewise, Bardonecchia for some reason becomes Melezet, and Sauze d'Oulx is Piazza del Mercato. Confused yet? Exactly.
The bus line numbers don't help either: OFM2, MC8, DOM7. They were apparently designed by the same person who thought up the Dewey decimal system.
Yet there is an Olympic lesson to learn from all of this: Patience. Only slumped in the seat of a bus can you snake your way along cliff railings to Sestriere amid trees frosted by fresh snow. Only along the highway of the Susa Valley do you see the broken ruins of an ancient past perched high on hillsides, lit in the night like amber jewels against the black bulk of the Alps beyond. They are views NBC cannot approximate.
The athletes know the value of patience. When we have to wait three minutes to cross the street, we scale fences to escape the cruel fate of an orderly queue. They have to wait four years.
And what of the events themselves? Don't be fooled: Speed skating doesn't just take a few minutes between curling and ice hockey. That's the miracle of television. Speed skating is an hours-long slog through dozens of racers who have a greater chance of becoming president of Burundi than winning a medal. Then at last, you arrive at the business end of the program.
For the festive Dutch fans, who made the Olympic oval the one can't-miss place to be in Turin, each skater is a celebration, every turn is a brushstroke of brilliance. "We like the beauty of the sport," says Gerald Bakker, a lawyer who came here from the Netherlands with nine colleagues to play music at every speed-skating event. "We believe in making a good atmosphere."
For American journalists, though, it can apparently take a toll. Overheard in the press tribune at the speed-skating venue: "It's the trash event of speed skating - not to be redundant."
Surely, those thoughts linger on the fringes of many American minds. Sports like biathlon and Nordic combined were dreamed up by Norwegians who doubtlessly wear horned helmets to work and have reindeer as pets, right? That puts those events on a rough par with the Greater Milwaukee Clogging Championship.
But patience can be a good thing. Only by sitting and watching all of speed skating's 10,000 meter race does it become a natural crescendo, not needing profiles or highlights to give it weight. It rises with the anticipation of the crowd. It is a race played in agonizing slow motion, where you can't fast forward to the payoff but are made to sit through the mounting fatigue of every shortening stride.
How did Chad Hedrick hold off Carl Verheijen to win silver in the race, when Verheijen was closing as if reeling him in with hook and rod? Hedrick pointed to his heart. It was a little flash from the American famous for a little too much of it. But this time was different. It was true.
This was a very different Hedrick from the one so eager to take shots at his teammate, Shani Davis, for not skating the team event. If not a contrite, this was a wiser Hedrick, at least. So dismissive of bronze a few days earlier, he embraced his silver - and his competitors.
This may be the Olympics America says it cares about - the Olympics not for the sports but for the ideal that underlies them. In short, the Olympics that dare us all to be better people. So I'll remember the day Hedrick won silver, and smiled.