Ice, ice baby

Mar 6, 2002 at 12:00 am
At least all that money Salt Lake City spent on hookers wasn't wasted. We, the USA, finished second in the medal count. We won the silver medal for winning medals! And who knows? If the International Olympic Committee keeps stripping medals and handing out new ones, we could pass the Germans for first place in a week or two.

Sure, 14 of our 34 medals came in sports that were tacked onto the Olympics so we could win. Sweeping the halfpipe event in men's snowboarding isn't quite the same as, say, actually beating the Austrians in alpine skiing, or the Norse in Nordic combined. And touching as it was for third-generation Olympian Jim Shea to win the gold in skeleton, with a photo of his late speed-skating grandfather tucked in his helmet, the U.S. Olympic Committee had only arranged for the sport to be revived because an American happened to be dominating it on the European circuit.

But that's what the Olympics is about: sleaziness, jingoism, and fixing, all in the name of good clean fun. The abstract ideals of competition are just an armature on which to hang hypocrisy. Going in, the U.S. press kept talking about how this was the 22nd anniversary of 1980's Miracle on Ice, in which a U.S. men's hockey team of collegians shocked the professional, invincible Soviet hockey machine. There is nothing more exciting than a victory for the underdog.

Unless someone else is the underdog. This time, in women's hockey, it was a plucky Team Canada, shocking an invincible U.S. hockey machine, 3-2, for the gold medal. The U.S. women were on a 35-game winning streak, had never even trailed in Olympic play this year, and had beaten Canada eight times in a row. But somehow, as the clock wound down this time, the NBC announcers weren't moved to ask us if we believed in miracles.

At least the team that scored the most goals won. As opposed to what happened in the great defining drama of the Salt Lake City games, the pairs figure skating. There, after an investigation into tainted judging, the scores were set aside, and Canadians Jamie Sale and David Pelletier were named gold medalists after the fact, boosted into a tie with the Russian winners, Anton Sikharulidze and Elena Berezhnaya.

Because a Canadian is the next best thing to an actual American, this was happy news. Sale and Pelletier became folk heroes for our continent and got to show their medals and their teeth on the cover of Time. Thereby illustrating the most important lesson for all young athletes: It's not whether you win or lose, it's how effectively you bitch and moan about the outcome.

I have no idea who really deserved to win. I don't watch pairs skating. I know that the French judge flipped out and said she was pressured to vote for the Russian — and then she backflipped, and said she was pressured to say she'd been pressured. The skating experts said the Russians had skated a bit unevenly through a technically challenging program, while the Canadians glided through an easier, crowd-pleasing program.

All I saw was the scene where the results got posted, the crowd booed, and Sale got a crazed gleam of self-righteousness in her eyes. From that moment on, as she wallowed in her outrage and vindication, I was squarely on Russia's side. Until, that is, Sarah Hughes beat Irina Slutskaya in the women's solo skating, and the Russians started whining about "subjective" judging themselves.

Where did anyone get the notion that figure skating was supposed to be objective, let alone fair? I don't remember any outrage in 1992, when Paul Wylie skated the performances of his life, back to back, and got stuck with the silver behind Ukrainian Viktor Petrenko, skating for the post-Soviet Unified Team, who fell on his ass in the long program and got the gold anyway. Wylie (who was, after all, used to how skating works) took his silver, told everyone he was ecstatic, and left it at that.

Figure skating isn't just, and it never will be. After this year's blowup, the figure-skating authorities announced that they would reform the sport by expanding the panel to a gang of 14 judges, half of whose scores will be thrown out at random. As with Olympic boxing, when they went to the hand-clicker punch-counting system after Roy Jones Jr. was robbed in Seoul, the purpose is not to clean up the judging; it's to add an opaque and confusing level of procedure that will give future fixers more cover.

Amid all that noise and nonsense about the figure skating, there was something inspiring about the spectacle of the short-track speed skating. This was supposed to be another U.S. walkover in another semibogus event, with funny-haired Apolo Anton Ohno taking four gold medals. But getting four medals in short-track, it turns out, is like getting four medals in roulette. The sport is too perverse for that.

It is next to impossible to do what the short-track skaters do — whipping around a tight oval, leaning flat sideways, all in a pack. And so they can't do it. Ohno's first run ended in a silver, after he and the rest of the leaders wiped out and the last-place skater passed them all for the gold. In his second, he finished second, but was boosted to the gold on the technical grounds that the first-place skater had been in front of him (leaving the uninitiated wondering where else he could have been). Ohno followed that with a disqualification of his own, and ended with a fourth-place finish in the 5,000-meter relay, after one of his teammates wrecked.

But he took the results with an aplomb. "This is definitely one of the highlights of my career," he told the press. He'd won some, and he'd lost some, and that was about right.

Tom Scocca writes for City Paper, where the original version of this feature appeared. Send comments to [email protected]