Since today is Valentine’s Day, I thought it would be nice to write about something upbeat, a story about good guys in sports.
It’s not easy.
Of course, there’s always the Olympics, which produces stars every two years in sports few of us pay any attention to unless there are Olympic medals involved.
Arguably the best sports story in my lifetime was the United States’ stunning upset of the Soviet Union at Lake Placed in 1980. I still cry at the end of the movie Miracle, not just because the story is stirring and true, but because that was a much simpler time in sports. Eric Heiden won five gold medals in speed-skating at that Olympics, and no one had to remind us that it was long track, not short track.
Back then, there weren’t that many events in the Winter Olympics. There were no X-game sports; there was no short-track speed skating — the Olympics answer to Roller Derby — and there were no “team” events in figure skating.
Now, because the International Olympic Committee and NBC want more events that will bring American eyes to TV sets, there are events called half-pipe and there are speed-skaters knocking each other down and there’s a bogus medal count because it includes so many events that aren’t really — at least in my mind — Olympic events.
What’s more, all these athletes, regardless of where they come from, are professionals. I can’t really knock that because in the old days, when the Eastern bloc nations fielded pro teams and the western nations sent athletes at least posing as amateurs, the playing field was decidedly unbalanced.
Of course that’s what made Lake Placid so special. It was a bunch of college kids competing with the best professional hockey team in the world. There was no chance for the Americans to win. But they did.
I still enjoy seeing someone named Chris Mazdzer become the first American to win a singles medal (silver) in luge because he’s 29-years-old, ranked 18th in the world and never dreamed he would have a moment like this. For the rest of his life, Madzer can sit at home, look at that medal and think about how magical that day was for him and everyone who cares about him.
Mazdzer’s medal made me flash back to 1976 when I was in college and dreamed of someday covering an Olympics. A guy named Bill Koch (pronounced Coke) won a silver medal in Nordic skiing, the first American to win a Nordic skiing medal.
In those days, I picked up The Washington Post every morning at the student union and read it pretty much cover-to-cover while having breakfast. Len Shapiro, who would later become both a close friend and a mentor, was the only Post reporter in Innsbruck and his story on Koch – which I remember was terrific — was stripped across the top of the sports page. That would never happen today because there are so many medals to be won that a medal like Mazdzer’s isn’t that big a deal.
In 1976, there were a total of 10 sports in the Winter Olympics and 37 events with medals available. This year, there are 15 sports and 102 events! In 1976, the U.S. won 10 medals — three gold, three silver, four bronze. In 2014, in Sochi, the U.S. won 28 medals: 9-7-12.
Medals aren’t nearly as precious now as they once were. The same is true of the Summer Olympics. Golf an Olympic sport? Are you kidding? Simple rule: If winning an Olympic gold medal isn’t the highlight of an athlete’s career, his or her sport shouldn’t be in the Olympics.
That would certainly knock out golf — where 21 of the invited players, including the top four in the world, didn’t even bother to show up in Rio — not to mention tennis and men’s basketball. Women’s basketball still remains a sport where the athletes truly treasure an Olympic medal and hockey — while clearly not a big deal to greedy NHL owners – is a very big deal to European players.
The two biggest Olympic sports in this country, at least based on TV ratings, are figure skating and gymnastics. Long before the Larry Nassar case horrified us all, there were nightmare stories about teen-age girls being pushed to the brink of — or beyond — breakdowns, physical and mental. Their parents put them in the hands of domineering coaches because even if it meant going away from home and being subjected to endless hours of training and berating, it was all in the name of winning Olympic gold.
Figure skating isn’t quite as bad – the athletes are a little older – but not much.
If you want to make the case that athletes in other sports, both Olympic and non-Olympic are pushed too hard, too soon by parents, you won’t get any argument from me. The very existence of a place like IMG Academy, where kids are sent away from home by their parents in pursuit of athletic greatness, or at the very least a college scholarship, is absolute proof of that.
For years though, gymnasts and figure skaters have been put on pedestals when they reach podiums with “USA” on their chests and television — NBC, since 1996 — turns them into cuddly American heroes. It’s commercial propaganda, designed to push TV ratings first and sell the athletes second.
That’s why I prefer luge and bobsled and long track speed-skating. Oh sure, an American athlete winning gold will pick up some endorsement money – and if you’re an Alpine skier and you look like Lindsay Vonn, you can become quite wealthy and transcend your sport, at least in marketing terms.
The X-games athletes make a lot of money for winning too, but that has more to do with ESPN’s non-stop promotion of X-games events because it is trying to sell commercial time.
I guess the bottom line is that the Olympics, like all sports, are still largely about the bottom line.
And politics. The notion that sports and politics shouldn’t mix sounds utopian, but it isn’t close to being realistic. Nowhere is this more true than the Olympics — where the IOC declares that politics should be out-of-bounds and then tells the athletes to wrap themselves in their flags – literally.
Hitler turned Berlin into a propaganda bonanza that many Americans bought into in 1936, aided by the unspeakable Avery Brundage agreeing not to allow two Jewish sprinters to participate in the 4×100 relay so as not to offend Herr Hitler.
The same Brundage declared that “The Games must go on” the morning after 11 Israeli athletes were murdered in Munich in 1972, because we couldn’t allow the awarding of medals to be interfered with by a monstrous act of terrorism. The United State boycotted the Games in Moscow in 1980. The Eastern bloc responded by boycotting Los Angeles four years later.
The list goes on. Putin used Sochi for propaganda and the Russian government cheated at every turn to run up its medal count on home ground. The IOC, presented with overwhelming evidence of fake drug samples, “banned” Russia from these Olympics. Except that 169 athletes wearing uniforms that say, “OAR” — Olympic Athlete of Russia — are in Pyeongchang. On Tuesday, the U.S. women’s hockey team beat a team wearing “OAR” on their uniforms. What kind of ban is that?
Let’s also not forget Vice President Mike Pence refusing to stand when the unified team from North and South Korea marched in during the opening ceremonies. At a time when tensions couldn’t be higher on the Korean peninsula, the unified team was a small, symbolic sign of hope. Nothing more, but nothing less. Pence — no doubt under orders from the White House — decided to create a political incident when he could have extended a small, symbolic olive branch.
The politics of the Olympics are filled with hypocrisy — on all sides. The IOC is run by corrupt politicians, who stuff their pockets in every possible way.
And yet, every two years a Chris Mazdzer comes along to put a smile on our faces.
It was Kenny Moore, who ran in two Olympic marathons — finishing fourth in Munich — before becoming a superb writer for Sports Illustrated who once wrote, “Only the athletes save the Games,” many years ago.
Through the years, that task has become more and more difficult. But it still rings true.
John Feinstein’s most recent non-fiction book, “The First Major—The Inside Story of the 2016 Ryder Cup–has spent four months on the New York Times bestseller list. His latest Young Adult book, “Backfield Boys—A Football Mystery in Black and White,”—was selected as one of 2017’s best books by The Junior Library Guild.