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March 6, 2014

'Miracle' shows when Olympics were pure

Cooperstown Crier

---- — The Winter Olympics ended recently and somehow they seemed to have lost their luster. It wasn’t so much that they were in Sochi where most of the events were on tape delay. It was more due to the new events (many we have never heard of) that have diluted the games. The Winter Olympics have gone from an intimate edition of their summer counterpart to one where it appears medal counts and commercialism is all that matters.

The worst thing about the winter games is the addition of the extreme sports that appeal more to daredevils than sportsmen. It’s not to say those participants are not great athletes, it’s just that most human beings couldn’t even contemplate trying sports like that. The only long-time Olympic sport that might question one’s sanity is ski jumping but at least there’s a history there. Watching people do wild flips or half-pikes off their skis or snowboards is more art than sport.

The International Olympic Committee also decided that traditional speed skating wasn’t enough. It added short-track skating as well and it appears the only reason was to make Apollo Ohno famous. Short-track speed skating looks like a bad version of roller derby. Sometimes it’s more important to be lucky than good. One time the slowest skater in the final won the gold medal when the three speedsters in front of him tripped over each other on the final turn and he passed them from half a lap back as they were sprawled out on the track.

The constant additions of extreme sports and other bizarre events have turned the Winter Olympics into a carnival atmosphere. It apparently was done to appeal to a younger audience and placate NBC for its $775 million rights fees. That way medal counts become a big deal and the United States can take home quite a haul. Compare that to the $50,000 that CBS paid for the 1960 games at Squaw Valley in California, or the one gold medal the United States captured in both 1964 and 1968.

Even the most identifiable sport at the winter games, alpine skiing, couldn’t resist the idea that more is better. It went from the traditional three races (downhill, slalom, and giant slalom) to five with the addition of the super G (whatever that is, I assume a GIANT giant slalom) and the combined (downhill and slalom). It means more TV exposure and more gold medals. Who’s going to complain?

The one sport that changed significantly for the better is ice hockey. In the last 20 years the National Hockey League (NHL) has taken a siesta in February and allowed its players to compete in the games. Now hockey fans can watch the world’s best and know most of the players. Women’s ice hockey has also been added to spice up the event.

The only down note is that the NHL may balk at taking a break in the future and not allow its players to participate. That would be a lose-lose proposition for both the NHL and the Olympics and reveal the short-sightedness of NHL owners. But that’s another story.

To understand what the Winter Olympics was once like, you should get a look at the classic movie, “Miracle.”  It’s the seminal moment of the Winter Olympics (at least for us). In the 1980 games at Lake Placid, the U.S. men’s ice hockey team shocked the world and beat the Soviet Union 4-3 on their way to winning the gold medal. It was the greatest upset in the history of sports. Veteran broadcaster Jim McKay compared it to a bunch of Canadian college football players beating the Pittsburgh Steelers.

It was in the midst of the Cold War and brought pride and joy to an entire nation, even to those that never followed hockey before. The 2004 film, starring Kurt Russell as Coach Herb Brooks, captures the spirit and intimacy of the Winter Olympics like no other. It essentially changed the popularity of the winter games in this country and made us a major player in practically every sport (except ski jumping and biathlon).

The movie is a testimony to what you can accomplish when you put your mind to it. Herb Brooks developed a scheme where he felt we could compete with the Russians but was totally foreign to the way we normally approach the game. It meant not necessarily selecting the best hockey players but ones who could fit his system. Brooks was merciless but effective during training. Russell is outstanding in the role as the taskmaster. “Miracle” is an unforgettable film.

In a sense, Lake Placid was the last “innocent” Winter Olympics. The ice hockey team’s historic upset heightened interest in the games in this country. Rights fees exploded, professionals were officially allowed to compete, and numerous sports were added. The bizarre Tanya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan 1994 ice skating controversy only added fuel to the fire.

Russia just spent over $50 billion to prepare Sochi for the games. The outcome was deemed a success but somehow it doesn’t seem right. When someone wins gold and appears in a commercial even before the medal ceremony one wonders what happened to the Olympic ideal.  “Miracle” is a reminder of the pure inspiration that the Olympics can produce without all of the baggage.