At some point last night, after the men's 500m speed skating competition was canceled because Vancouver's 'green' zambonis couldn't properly clean the ice, I took to the walls of Facebook to register my protest. Yes, this is sad as it sounds; I literally got angry at what I was watching, decided I had to do something, and marched over to my computer to complain with a status update. Here's what I wrote:
Vancouver gets an emphatic F- for these Olympics. Seriously, did they prepare at all? They can't even get indoor ice right.
For the record, two people 'liked' it. Anyway, I sprawled back out on the couch, content in the knowledge that I'd done my part, and got to musing. When my thoughts on the subject were exhausted, I decided I'd been unfair. More than anything, Vancouver has been unlucky. Let's take a look at the mishaps and errors so far.
*The Georgian Luger's Death
This tragedy, hours before the opening ceremony, has cast its melancholy shadow over the whole fortnight. And in the days following, it's come out that the athlete himself was scared of the track, that the track was ridiculously fast, and that even a two-time gold medalist suffered a bad crash in a training run. But even with all these details, it's also become apparent that the death was more a result of driver error than anything flawed in the track. The extra speed didn't help, but Kumaritashvili failed to compensate after a turn, and that error was what sent him flying over the barrier. According to the IOC, at least, it's not a mistake top lugers are expected to make. And yes, this particular track was faster and more dangerous than a typical run, but without this horrific incident, it may have been viewed as an exciting and challenging twist. In some ways, you can call it bad luck.
*The Missing Pillar
When the fourth support for the Olympic cauldron failed to rise, the torch-bearers stood around awkwardly, unsure how to proceed. They eventually improvised, using only three, but it was an embarrassing moment for the organizers, and maybe for Canada in general. But the ceremonies to that point had gone off without a hitch. On a budget that was about $300 million less than Beijing's, David Atkins did a nice job incorporatin various bits of Canadian history and culture. It was even moving at times. If not for the final episode, it would have been seen as an unqualified success. You can't accuse him, or his people, of poor preparation or lackadaisical effort. Again, it's a case of bad luck.
*The Downhill Postponement
Aggravating, because everyone wanted to see this marquee event on the weekend. Those of us who work had to miss it yesterday afternoon, and it's a shame because Bode Miller earned a measure of redemption with his bronze medal. But this one is down to mother nature. It's worth noting that Vancouver lost its status as a World Cup skiing stop due to this exact same issue (several events had to be canceled completely in the mid-90s), but if we want to get angry about that, our ire should be directed at the IOC selection committee, not Vancouver. Should they have recused themselves based on a fear of warm weather and fog? Of course not. They made their bid, and had to hope things worked out. If anything, they probably thought they could manufacture enough snow to bring it off in case of unseasonable temperatures More bad luck.
*The 500m Speed Skating Postponement
On its face, this is probably the most egregious violation. Speed skating takes place indoors, in a controlled environment. There should be no excuse for botching the ice situation here. But Vancouver wanted to go green, which is admirable, so they used untested electric zambonis instead of the usual propane-powered machines, and it screwed up the ice. Three times. Still, the intentions were good, and you have to think the zambonis worked up until this point, right? The first speed skating event went off without a hitch, and nothing was reported during the extensive training sessions leading up to the games. I'm chalking this up to bad luck too.
That makes four screw-ups, of various degrees, that aren't necessarily Vancouver's fault. The obvious conclusion is that the 21st Winter Olympiad is cursed. I'll be following this story as it develops.
*Bode Miller's bronze was pretty awesome. Nice to see the Turino monkey off his back. Also, how awesome is downhill? I forgot how exciting it is for a spectator sport. Between that and biathlon and cross country, I'm starting to think I wouldn't mind living in a Scandinavian country where they don't have real sports.
*US wins the first snowboarding gold on a great finish by Seth Wescott. He won in Turino too, and nobody expected him to repeat since he's 33 and apparently not in great form. But his event, snowboard cross, pits four racers against each other on a winding course, and it takes both skill and clever racing to win. The experience counted this time, as he came from behind and just edged the Canadian boarder at the line. It was a big relief, because I have this prejudiced idea that the US should win every snowboarding gold. I realize there's no logic behind this idea, but somehow it seems like our sport. We're the coolest! It's the basketball of the winter olympics.
*The Chinese went one-two in pairs figure skating. I'll take a break from my usual anti-China stance to point to the great story of Yin Bao, their coach. Bao was part of the first ever Chinese pairs team. He proposed the idea, and because China was such a closed society, he and his partner had to learn their moves from photographs. They did well enough to compete in the 1980 World Championships in Germany, but their skating was so bad, and so awkward, that the audience laughed at them. So did Irina Rodnina, a Soviet champion.
Last night, NBC did a small profile on Bao, and he described it as "embarrassing." He put his head in his hands, and you could tell the memory still stung. They finished dead last. They competed in the '84 winter games, and the result was the same. That was the end of Bao's career, but he vowed to devote his life to building China's program. That included not being around his family and son, which still brings him to tears to discuss. But his intensity and work ethic paid off last night, when his teams won gold and silver. Just an incredible story.
*UConn beats Nova at home? Really? It's looking increasingly unlikely that anybody but Kansas or Kentucky will hold the #1 spot again this year. Nova and Syracuse both slipped this week, and the next in line, Purdue and Duke, already have 3 and 4 losses, respectively. Kansas and Kentucky each have one, and I don't see both teams losing a pair as the season winds down. Particularly not the Jayhawks.
However, this does open things up for Duke to get a #1 seed. Win out (which is a good possibility), and it's ours.
*The Big 10 has quietly become a very good conference. They have 4 teams in the top 15, 3 of which look really good, and one of which, Michigan State, are having a tough midseason spell but will surely be in top form by the tournament. Illinois, meanwhile, are red hot and just out of the top 25. I can easily see this being a March Madness where hard-nosed Big 10 teams surprise everyone and put 3 teams in the elite 8. You heard it here first.
US Hockey starts its quest for gold at 3pm, the men's short program airs tonight (Go Johnny Weir!), and Saranac Lake's own Tim Burke goes for gold in the pursuit, though it'll be tough since his start position is determined by his poor showing in the 10k event on Sunday. Meanwhile, Kentucky will get tested on the road at Miss. St. Book that.
Last: if you can manage to jump through NBC's hoops, watch Alexandre Bilodeau's gold medal ceremony. Goose-bumpy moment as the entire audience belts out the world's best national anthem (sorry, it's true).