' ' Cinema Romantico: From the Couch: the 2018 Winter Olympics In Review

Saturday, February 24, 2018

From the Couch: the 2018 Winter Olympics In Review

My jam for the 2018 Winter PyeongChang Olympics was biathlon. That’s the sport, culled from an old Nordic military exercise, where you ski a good long ways and then stop to take five shots with a small-bore air rifle, skiing a penalty lap for each missed shot. The skiing, it seemed to me, was somehow both essential and superfluous. The races were won and lost at the shooting range, where a few shots gone awry could doom you, leaving you too far behind to catch up, yet those shots were deliberately made so difficult by all the arduous locomotion across snow. And while natural elements, like wind, sometimes played a factor in missed shots, more often it was mental rather than technical, something akin to less artificial soccer penalty kicks. In the 12.5k Mass Start, Slovakia’s Anastasiya Kuzmina calmly hit her first 19 of 20 targets, and then on the last one...froze. She stood there for ten seconds, staring dead ahead, unable to pull the trigger. The biathlon was in her head. Finally, she shot, and missed. She won Gold anyway and good for her, but oh, the terrifying thrill of those ten seconds.

Martin Fourcade, French biathlete extraordinaire, owner of the most immaculate five o’clock shadow in PyeongChang, won perhaps the best race at these Olympics, the 15k Mass Start in a photo finish literally decided by less than the length of this boot. I, however, was just as taken with his first and second races. In the former, he, perhaps the best shooter in biathlete history, as NBC explained, missed several shots, finishing a disappointing eighth. But in the latter, he found his rhythm, and upon reaching the last targets all alone and well ahead of everyone else, he took aim and rattled off five successful shots. He turned and pumped his fist, exorcising demons, maybe, but also finally living up to his own immense biathlon ideal. He skied off to Gold.

Though the Winter Olympics has traditional races where it’s you against others, it is just as consumed by races against the clock and the mountain, as well as judged, subjective competitions. If it sounds abstract, I have always found these events metaphysically true, where an athlete knows what he or she is capable of and seeks to achieve, if not occasionally transcend, his or her ideal. Even this blog’s beloved curling, where two teams square off, is littered with simple shots that, like biathlon target shooting, pits the curler against his or her own mind more than any person or thing. And framing the Games in a Nationalistic or Medal Count context betrays the spirit of this notion, as do whiny op-eds about America having a lousy Olympics. Impeccable American skier Mikaela Shiffrin was unfairly hyped for three Gold Medals a la Jean-Claude Killy in 1968 before she’d won one. As if channeling all that pressure, she threw up before her best race, the Slalom, and finished fourth. When the on-course NBC reporter, as if only prepped on questions in the afterglow of victory, asked how she overcame her nerves, Shiffrin’s response was positively Popovich-ian in its pragmatism: “Not very well.”

Shiffrin’s slalom fate reminded me of the legendary Dutch long track speed skater Ireen Wust, who, in the live stream I saw of her 3,000 race, circled the track while the Australian commentator whose name I never caught spent the entire time braying about Wust’s legend and how her crossing the finish line with the fastest time was a mere formality…until she did not cross the finish line with the fastest time. The announcer never bothered to analyze where she technically went wrong in the race because emotionally he could yet comprehend that it happened at all. It’s hard to square with our athletic gods proven mortal.

Sometimes, however, our mortals summon the strength of the gods. Look no further than Czech snowboarder cum skier Ester Ledecká who earned one of the most shocking Gold medals in Olympic annals. In the Super-G – lesser than a downhill but swifter than a slalom – her chances at medaling seemed so unlikely that NBC commentator Dan Hicks literally told us Austria’s Anna Veith had won Gold even as he simultaneously confessed there were more skiers, including Ledecká, left to compete. This was because even in finally modernizing their Olympics broadcast to show us live events, NBC still often operates from a tape delay ethos, and they needed to ship us off to an American figure skater’s routine rather than let the current race play out. If their decision was admittedly based on sound logic, it nevertheless underlined the folly of trying to impose a narrative that should dictate itself.

Ledecká, of course, would not have had NBC on her mind as she skied to an improbable Gold Medal, beating Veith by one one-hundredth of a second, but she toppled their telecasting hubris nonetheless. For the rest of the Games, NBC inevitably relived this moment in a neat little package befitting a short movie, one that made her victory feel destined, which was completely wrong. Ledecká’s stupefied reaction (see above) at the bottom of the course, as well as the manner in which she shook her head, once, then twice, on the medal stand, proved this was not destiny. No, this was an athlete ineffably finding the wherewithal to eclipse her own ideal.

The United States Women’s Cross-Country Sprint Relay team certainly eclipsed its ideal. No one representing the Stars & Stripes had ever won Gold in the sport, and only one dude, forty years ago, had earned a medal at all. Still, America’s two-woman team of Jessie Diggins and Kikkan Randall found itself in the thick of it with cross-country titans Norway and Sweden. Even if I knew the U.S. won as I watched, the intensity of the race was so palpable — the lead repeatedly switching, no one able to claim the upper hand — that I found myself swept along on this unbelievable wave of emotion anyway, actually asking myself as Diggins made the turn for home, “How did she pull this off?” And while I don’t wish to reduce such a monumental feat of strength to the announcers, well, NBC’s Chad Salmela’s call as Diggins surged across the finish line met the moment in such a way beffiting its ludicrous improbability. Al Michaels exclaiming “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!” was melodramatic but composed; Salmela’s call was completely cut loose of all emotional moorings. He didn’t so much scream as emit this guttural sound that sonically approximated a person involuntarily falling on the floor in the wake of inordinate drama, which might well have spoken for everyone in America who saw that race.

The sound Salmela discharged also, in retrospect, seemed to be embodied in Norwegian ski jumper Robert Johansson’s final leap in the Normal Hill competition a week and a half earlier that elevated him from 10th place to 3rd place, a ski jump as frenzied roar. I’d be lying if I told you I grasped the finger points of the sport. To my untrained eye most of the jumps looked similar, though something about Johansson’s was nevertheless strikingly different. Even now I’d be hard pressed to describe it, but if ski jumpers are so balanced and calm in the air, Johansson’s body almost seem to come unglued right at the end, as if he was sailing past some invisible boundary of his own perceived limits, which was victory unto itself, a Bronze as good as Gold. His formidable handlebar moustache may well have been what made him a star, but even such facial hair was no match for that jump.

In the ballyhooed women’s figure skating showdown between two Russians — beg your pardon, that’s two Olympic Athletes From Russia — Evgenia Medvedeva and Alina Zagitova both lived up to their ideal. If so many of these skating showdowns I’ve seen over the years have turned on flaws, these two were flawless. Still, there could only be one Gold Medalist, and so it was Zagitova, a choice, it seemed, placing athleticism over artistry. I confess I preferred artistry; I preferred Medvedeva. “I did everything,” she said. “I did my best.” I’d desperately like to claim her best was enough, theoretically or otherwise, but her face in the wake of losing by what may as well have amounted to a breath betrayed that it was not. She kept looking up with big searching eyes at the scoreboard like her score might, just might, change. She skated to music from Anna Karenina, which reminds us that if you look for perfection you will never be satisfied, and I suppose in living her ideal, Medvedeva gloriously, terribly, lived that truth too.

But then, I might argue that truth was flouted by an American snowboarder. No, not high voltage stars Chloe Kim and Shaun White, but the magisterially named Maddie Mastro. She had three runs in the halfpipe and began the first two by attempting some audacious move where she caught so much air that in the slow motion replays, as she twisted around, it looked like she was dancing with herself. But, the level of difficulty was so high that she crashed each time. And on the third and final attempt, when she needed to stay upright just to put down a score to stay in the competition, she forewent playing it safe and opted once more for that risky mid-air dance move. That she crashed again was beside the point. She was searching for something beyond a score, beyond a medal, beyond mathematically gaming the system; she was searching for her ideal. Faster. Higher. Stronger. Citius. Altius. Fortius. Godspeed, you valiant Californian, you won the Gold Medal of this sentimental fool’s heart.

That brings me to Aljona Savchenko. She’s a German pairs figure skater, one who stole my heart four years ago in Sochi with her previous partner Robin Szolkowy, so much so that I wrote about her and her commitment to artistic truth in the face of long odds. If she lived her truth, however, she did not live her ideal, crashing out to a Bronze medal. Perhaps her skate in PyeongChang, in the company of her new pairs partner Bruno Massot, was about redemption, yet when they took the ice for the long program standing in fourth place, not out of it but nevertheless up against it, redemption felt and looked like an afterthought.

The Silver Medal winning French Ice Dancing couple Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron became infamous later for dumbly puritanical reasons, but I was most taken with their expressed intent to put artistry before the podium, which made me think of Savchekno & Massot. No doubt the German pair had the podium on its mind, but still…in their long program they seemed to surpass the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, where every jump and throw appeared so effortless, where the music did not seem to accompany them but ineffably flow from them, that you just sort of stopped feeling the moment’s pressure and vanished into its astonishing artistry. And when they concluded, Savchenko literally collapsed on the ice, an indelible image which reminded me of Bob Beamon winning Long Jump Gold in Mexico City in 1968 by so thoroughly obliterating the world record that he fell to his knees and sobbed, as if he’d somehow summoned superhuman strength and couldn’t comprehend it.

Savchenko & Massot won Gold. They earned a world record score. That’s not to be downplayed or dismissed, and yet, to see that routine was to see them transcend their ideal to such an extent that for six minutes they left not only the podium but the rest of this blabbering, boring earthly plain behind. As they skated into a death spiral late in the program, the television camera angle switched so that we saw it from straight above. I’d swear that was Zeus’s point of view, looking down from his Mount Olympus throne, wistfully nodding approval.

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