Thursday, February 18, 2010

Olympic Stories

As I watch the Winter Olympics this year, I'm struck by how much coverage is given, not to the events themselves, but to the backstories of the athletes. We've been treated to a peek into their lives, their intense training, and their deeply held dreams. I care more and watch sports I previously had little interest in because of the depth of the athlete's committment to their goal.

As a fiction writer, I understand the psychology. A reader's involvement with a character is directly proportional to the intensity with which the character wants something passionately. But the Olympics aren't fiction. They're real life.

And this year, real death.

Nodar Kumaritashvili, the 21 year old luger from Georgia, has been laid to rest. The Wall Street Journal is reporting that there were decisions made in the design of the luge track at Whistler that were intended to make it commercially profitable after the Games, but ended up creating the fastest, most dangerous slide run ever.

Nodar confessed to his father that the track scared him. I usually think fear is a good thing. It's designed to keep us from folly. But my DH had a different take on things. He says a man can't let fear stop him when he's trained so hard, and devoted so much to something. (BTW, the DH is a private pilot, so he knows a thing or two about gut-checks. Lots of guys start ground school, but bail when it's time to solo. I may be a sniveling Beta myself, but I do love my Alpha!)

And it's not just the guys taking extreme chances this year. Last night, I had to look away as 4 women took "agony of defeat" falls on the downhill run (another example of a run that's too steep, too icy, with dangerous curves and to top it off, in washboard condition! Note to future Olympic committees: It might be good to make sure you site the Winter Olympics in a place that consistently has record snowfalls!) I was terrified we were going to witness someone's death or life-altering spinal injury. By the end of the competition, the women were so grateful just to have reached the bottom of the run in one piece, they all started collapsing in near hysteria.

I don't want to take anything from Lindsey Vonn, who won the gold medal. She is the poster girl for playing hurt and not letting an injury impact her performance. But I think some of the other medal contenders pulled back after watching multiple competitors lose control at the same point on the run. They turned in slower times than if the run had been in better condition and not seemingly designed to induce catastrophic accidents.

I worry that in search of better, stronger, faster, we're pushing our athletes to take unparalleled and unnecessary risks. And there is an element out there that relishes disaster. The decision to air the training run that took Kumaritashvili's life was the wrong decision. I've taken pains to insure that I haven't seen it out of respect for the young man and his family.

I'm all for competition. I applaud the Olympic spirit. But I don't want to see our modern Games degenerate into a Roman colosseum mind-set. We don't need gladiators to entertain us.

Maybe I should start watching curling . . .


Jane L said...

Emily, I love the Olympics! This year my husband and I have enjoyed the festivities mostly because Vancouver holds a special meaning to us. We spent a month there on our honeymoon in 86 at the Worlds Fair!
I applaud you for not watching that horrid film of the Luge crash, my husband and I were watching the news and they did'nt even say it was graphic or nothing, they acted like it was just an accident, we had no chance to turn it off until it was too late and I was furious at our media coverage of this. We should be ashamed of ourselves, to have such little care for a family and team that lost a very spirited young man!
We are a family of skiers and snowboarders, so we cheer on the competitors and have learned a great deal of their behind the scenes lives.
I agree though, the limits of competition are dangerous and when do we draw the line?

EmilyBryan said...

Vancouver is a gorgeous city, but I think some of the blame has to be laid on the conditions of the course. The athletes are going to try to conquer whatever is thrown at them. The organizers need to make sure they aren't running such a deadly gauntlet.

librarypat said...

Overall, the performances of the athletes this year have been a little lacking. I'm not sure if it is me or not. The figure skaters seem to be making more mistakes than usual and very few have had a real spark or excitement to their performances. The conditions of the "playing field" whether it is the slopes, the ice on the runs, or the ice on the rinks and tracks there seem to be major problems for the contestants. It is a shame they are unable to present their best through no fault of their own. They have been very lucky there haven't been more serious injuries or another death. There is an inherent risk in most of these events, but we do not have to increase it. These competitions should be to show the best, not see how far we can push before something breaks.

librarypat said...

My Dad live about 65 miles south of Montreal in NY State. For all the Olympics most people up there watch the Canadian stations. They have extensive live coverage almost all day. They don't have the bios and other side features as far as I know. They don't edit down the coverage as much as the US and seem to give more of the competitors coverage. Both he and my DH want to see the competition, not listen to a TV version of People Magazine. I like a few personal interest stories, but last Olympics they seemed to spend more time on those than the few performances they showed. It is not as excessive this time.

EmilyBryan said...

Pat, Sounds like the Canadian coverage gives viewers an experience similar to what they'd have if they were actually at the games.

We lived in Park City Utah when the Olympics were in Salt Lake City. The athletic events were just a sideline to all the other activities going on. We attended free concerts, freestyle skiing demos, played in a huge snow maze--it was great!

Glynis Peters said...

I have followed it this year with more enthusiasm, as my son has made Vancouver his home. He and his new wife were thrilled when the flame stopped outside their house. Both are Brit and snowboarders, they say the atmosphere is amazing in the city at the moment.
How I feel for the family and team members of the young man who died. I agree I do not want to watch death sports, I am in awe of some who participate and question the mind of others. Some of the sports look lethal. I am told I am a softy, but as I told my son, my adrenalin will come when I write THE END.

EmilyBryan said...

Glynnis--I'm sure Vancouver is positively glowing at the moment. There is incredible energy surrounding the games. Glad your son and daughter-in-law are enjoying them!

Janet Kay Gallagher said...

My husband had some kind of game going almost 24 hours. We always enjoyed the Olympics. It is not as fun watching alone. I hate to see someone injured. The Ice Skating events are always so beautiful. As you said the reporting when someone fell was terrible. Like he could have not had that happen...If he could at that time and place he would have done it perfectly and not fallen.
We see a moment of their lives and they make it good or lose and the exhileration and dissappointment must take a big toll on them. I always think of the grueling hours spent practicing just to get to go to the event.
"Biggest Loser" program sent their people there for a week of training. The series of equipment and exercises were very hard for the real athletes.
As you said:The stories behind some of those particants are very inspirational.

Janet Kay Gallagher said...

I agree on the lacking of some of the Events. None of the ice skaters had good music. IT was very Dull. That was why I thought it was off.