Our Backstreets #6: The Olympics: The Real Lord of the Rings


By Marilyn Ferdinand

It’s that time again, the time when athletes from around the world meet in some politically savvy town buried in red ink from construction cost overruns to compete for medals, media glory, and commercial endorsements. Yes, it’s the Winter Olympics, which have been thoughtfully staggered with the Summer Olympics so I only have to wait two years for another Olympic event. And boy do I love them!

That’s no joke. Before I became a movie hound, I was deeply into sports. ABC’s Wide World of Sports, hosted by Jim McKay, was as formative an experience for me as Leonard Bernstein’s televised Young People’s Concerts were for my musical education and The Late Show was for developing my taste for classic movies. I traveled the world, by proxy, to view diverse and sometimes bizarre sports, such as luge and wrist wrestling. I was as familiar with the names Franz Klammer and Vasily Alexiev as other American kids were with Mickey Mantle and Joe Namath. Before I actually set foot in Chamonix, I’d seen alpine skiers race down the slopes that surrounded it. Nothing was off limits to Wide World of Sports, and no sport seemed without some interest to me (except maybe curling). When the Olympics rolled around, they seemed to belong to me alone, separated in my sports knowledge and enthusiasms from my fellow Americans.

The Olympics have changed, and not for the better, in my opinion. All sports are no longer created equal now that marketing has taken over coverage of the games. During the last Winter Olympics, you’d have thought that every athlete at the Olympic village in Salt Lake City had slapped on a pair of figure skates and learned overnight how to do a throw double axel. It got very boring for those of us who live and die to watch cross-country skiing, ski jumping, and ice hockey. (Yes, I watched on TV as the 1980 miracle hockey team from the United States beat the Russians–a much more satisfying experience, by the way, than Miracle, the 2005 movie about the victory.)

However, I’m happy to report that some sort of happy medium has been attained for the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino (why isn’t the American media egocentrically sticking to English translations like they always used to and calling in Turin?). I was as happy as a honey bee in a dandelion patch this afternoon at the excellent cross-country ski coverage (well, the men’s coverage, at least; the women’s coverage was liberally interrupted by those much-more-interesting commercials). Although the announcers were as clueless as ever about this incredible sport they only cover every four years, the camera actually followed most of the action and showed the exhausted skiers at the end of the race, collapsed on the snow. Yes, these skiers do breathe a little harder at the end of a 30 km all-out race than the figure skaters do after a 5-minute “long” program. Not one American skier’s name was mentioned to underline that the Olympics can only interest Americans if there is an American to cheer for. It also was very gratifying that the athlete who lit the Olympic flame during the opening night ceremony was a cross-country skier, Stefania Belmondo.

And what does one say about that opening ceremony? I watched almost the whole thing, only tuning out once the parade of nations got to be a bit of a drag (but I sure did love those Moschino “mountain” gowns the placard bearers were wearing!). It’s great that the Italians, who took the theme of passion as their choreographic guiding principle, saw fit to include alpen horns, plastic cows pulled on ropes in dazzling circles around waltzing couples dressed like Jersey cows, and Power Rangers with flaming heads (my sweetie and I nicknamed them firemen) in that definition. Some say the combination of Puccini and American pop music didn’t show Italy’s cultural heritage to best advantage. I say that Fellini at his best couldn’t have done better. The opening ceremony was rich in pastiche and panache—the best that Italy has to offer.

Gotta slide now. The skeleton competition is about to begin! l

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