by Clark Groome
How appropriate was it that the XXII Winter Olympic Games began in Sochi, Russia, just as our local weather behaved like winter on speed?
That’s what happened, giving Olympic fans and others who were suffering from cabin fever an opportunity to spend time with some spectacular events. The athletes, from the winners to those just happy to be there, never ceased to impress.
While fully expecting to enjoy the figure skating, ice hockey and curling, I wasn’t ready for the pure joy that some of the new sports and their participants demonstrated. And it started on the first day of competition.
One local sportscaster declared that he didn’t like seeing playground equipment on a mountain. He was referring to the rails and platforms and jumps that make up the course that slopestyle snowboarders and skiers used to perform their incredible tricks, some of which were made up right on the spot.
While there were a lot of impressive slopestyle athletes, the most beguiling was Sage Kotsenburg, the 20-year-old American from Park City, Utah, who won the men’s snowboard slopestyle, giving the United States its first gold medal and its first new favorite Olympian.
Speaking a language almost as hard to understand as the host country’s, Kotsenburg had the unaffected charm of a kid in love with what he’s doing but not really aware of what’s he done. He was a refreshing character performing in an unfamiliar but entertaining sport.
Slopestyle skiing gave the Americans their third podium sweep in Winter Olympics history. The other two: men’s figure skating in Cortina in 1956 (Hayes Allen Jenkins, Ronnie Robertson, David Jenkins) and men’s halfpipe in Salt Lake City in 2002 (Ross Powers, Danny Kass, Jarret Thomas). The medalists in Sochi were Joss Christensen, Gus Kenworthy and Nicholas Goepper.
In the men’s figure skating competition, the American Jeremy Abbott, in his last appearance before retiring, gave as gutsy a performance as you’re likely to see in his short program. After falling and injuring himself, he lay on the ice for what seemed like forever and then got up and, clearly hurting, finished his program in what was one of the best performances of the night. Although out of medal range, his long program was, according to the skating experts, as good a performance as he’d ever given.
Before these games started, Flyers Chairman Ed Snider said in no uncertain terms that he hated having the NHL players in the Olympics. It shuts the season down for almost three weeks and puts the players who are there at risk of injury or fatigue.
The owners and those who would like to see the Olympics return to their original amateur status would love to have the hockey players stay home and the NHL continue to play.
The players, on the other hand, really want to participate. They love representing their countries.
Olympic hockey is special. Two of the most exciting hockey games I’ve ever seen took place at the Olympics. The first was the 1980 United States defeat of the Soviet team in Lake Placid that came to be known as “The Miracle on Ice.” The second was the 2010 gold medal game in Vancouver between the USA and Canada that our neighbors to the north won on an overtime goal by Sidney Crosby.
Well you can add another “greatest game ever” to the mix. In a preliminary matchup between the United States and Russia, the U.S. beat the host Russians 3-2 in a shootout. One American player, the St. Louis Blues’ T.J. Oshie, scored four times in the shootout.
Later, after interviewing Oshie, who gave a lot of credit for the win to United States goalie Jonathan Quick, NBC’s Al Michaels, in what just might be the understatement of the Olympics so far, said, “I’ve seen a lot of thrilling games in my life – that’s right up there with them.” Michaels, remember, was the guy who covered the 1980 USA/Russian game and famously said, “Do you believe in miracles? YES!!!!!”
If Ed Snider and the other naysayers about NHL participation in future Olympics were watching, it would be hard to believe that last Saturday’s game wouldn’t change their minds. The interruption is, after all, only two-and-one-half weeks every four years and the hockey is as good as it gets. Having the NHL players in the Olympics is good for the fans and, most important to the owners, good for the sport.
The Olympics have another week to go. We’ll see if it’s as exciting and as much fun as the first week was.