' Cinema Romantico: Two Happy Faces: The Magical Tale Of The Women's Olympic Downhill

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Two Happy Faces: The Magical Tale Of The Women's Olympic Downhill

At their finest, sports never feel simply like games people play but like works of improbable fiction. The arena becomes a canvas, the athletes become characters upon it and the game or event is riddled with thematic text and plot twists. This, in essence, describes what transpired during the signature event of the women’s alpine skiing at the Sochi Winter Olympics – the fierce, fretful downhill. And just as brilliant drama so often refuses to conform to expectations, the women’s downhill ultimately resisted NBC’s pre-packaged, heat-to-serve narrative, and became so much richer and joyously confounding. The Norse god of skiing, after all, is not actually a god but a goddess, and if I didn’t know better (and I most certainly don’t), I might be tempted to say that SkaĆ°i took it upon herself to author the story.


As an unabashed but American Olympic fan whose mornings and afternoons are ensconced in work, I am more or less forced to view them through the prism of NBC. And since my preferred viewing method is spoiler free, I have spent the last week walking on social media eggshells, tip-toeing around the Internet. It’s exhausting but necessary, and yet even in my extreme caution, I can still trip up. To wit, one morning this past week, groggy, while checking my email, I foolishly refreshed my Twitter feed. Naturally the first Tweet that appeared betrayed the fact American skier Julia Mancusco had not won the women’s downhill. I hung my head. I think I even cursed. Still, when my friend Dave, a fellow Olympics enthusiast, came over that night to watch coverage with me, we tuned into the women’s downhill, though it felt anti-climactic with the knowledge of Mancuso’s defeat. Little did I know that knowledge was merely this fable’s preamble.

A Swiss skier named Dominique Gisin took to the starting gate. She’s twenty-eight years old. She’s had nine knee surgeries. Nine! How on earth she can wage war with g-forces on a pair of skis post-nine knee surgeries is utterly beyond me, but she does. She had a horrific crash at the Vancouver Olympics downhill, leaving her with a concussion. A headline writer might say this made it about redemption, but more likely it just made Right Now that much more important. I instantly threw the weight of my pointless support behind Gisin. Maybe I did so because I already knew Mancuso wasn’t going to win, but then again I’m the dude who turned on the US/Swiss women’s curling match and immediately turned coat because a Swiss curler was sporting the elegant tongue stud/nose ring combo and so maybe I have just long repressed an affection for Swiss culture. Either/Or/Or Something Else, Gisin flew down the mountain and took the lead. If the nine knee surgeries had not already won me to her side, her reaction at the conclusion of her run might have – screams of bewildered delight. Her face, her body language, it all said: “Really?! REALLY?!” Really. She stood in the waiting area, a woman in a waking dream, racer after racer falling short of her time.

A bunch of skiers and a couple commercials later and we had arrived at the Slovenian skier Tina Maze, a part time pop star. NBC trotted out a patented puff piece, telling of Maze’s home country, its tiny population embroiled in financial crisis, and what she means to them. I immediately panicked because I knew that in this moment NBC had to be selling its own narrative. “They wouldn’t show this if she didn’t win!” I cried. But Dave wasn’t listening. The puff piece had understandably moved him. “She’s got the weight of a nation,” he declared. “You have to go for Maze.” “Nine knee surgeries!” I countered. “WEIGHT OF A NATION!” he yelled. “NINE KNEE SURGERIES!” I hollered.

So there we were, lines drawn in the living room carpet, hanging on a race that ended something like eighteen hours ago, he for the Slovenian, me for the Swiss. And the run was pure drama. She took the lead early in her run, barely, and held it the whole way, until she took a final turn a bit too wide. She flew for the finish. Gisin or Maze? Maze of Gisin? Who would it be?!


Well, you probably know……it was both. In a sport decided by hundredths of a second, the runs of Gisin and Maze were identical down to the second and that second’s hundredth – 1:41.57 – and they both won Gold. And lest you think this was disheartening to either of them, I offer as evidence the camera catching sight of Gisin embracing Maze in a garrulous bear hug. Maybe I welled up, maybe not, I’ll let you work that one out on your own.

Ultimately, ironically, learning Mancuso’s fate ahead of time only strengthened my experience of witnessing this mountainside event, reminding of the folly in assuming one knows how the script is written. This is not to suggest I was happy that Mancuso lost, far from it, but that I was enthralled with and ultimately overcome by the twists the story took. Two skiers, both with their own backstory, both richly deserving of a happy end, both getting it. By claiming a sporting event can become an improbable work of fiction, and to specifically reference a Norse god, would, I know, seem to suggest the result was not in Gisin’s and Maze’s hands. I don’t literally believe that to be true, even if romantically a part of me might like to, it’s just that on occasion an event can unfold so exquisitely and end so perfectly that you’ll swear a higher power just had to be holding sway.

Afterward, the inevitable idea of timing to the one-thousandth of a second rather than the one-hundredth was argued for, a better way to know the true “winner”. “If it’s gaugeable,” said former Olympic skier Picabo Street, “let us have it.” She continued: “Give it to me. Give me the thousandth. I want it.” Well, of course she does. She’s an American, and you know how Americans love their absolutism.

I much prefer the words of Maze: “Two happy faces.”


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