Tuesday, February 25, 2014

2014 Sochi Olympics - Games Review

I like rankings. Like in Part 1, where I ranked the best uniforms at the Olympic Opening Ceremonies. Rankings can turn virtually anything into a competition. Best uniforms are just the start. Today, I will be ranking the events themselves (with some commentary of the performances thrown in). For the first time in my memory, I managed to watch each Olympic event.

Starting from worst to first:

Figure Skating Team Competition: I know this is really a combination four different events. But why are we seeing the best skaters perform both short and programs twice, once for the team competition and once for the individual medals? There's nothing really "team" about skating. Unlike gymnastics, where teammates cross train on various apparatuses, singles skaters don't skate in pairs and pairs don't ice dance. I know that more figure skating = better, but they are literally performing the same programs twice. The worst part was this format unnecessarily deprived the world the opportunity to see Evgeni Plushenko, the best male skater I've ever seen, go for one last individual gold as he left all of himself on the ice for team Russia. Ditch this format and award team medals to the most outstanding nations at the end of all the individual rounds.

Ice Dancing: I'll admit: this has been my least favorite event for a while. I like a good ballroom competition, but I just don't get ice dancing. At least in figure skating, another sport in which I have little experience (suck at skating backwards), it's more or less obvious which skater are world-class (don't fall, clean lines).

But this time I set out with a real desire to learn about the sport. Then Meryl Davis and Charlie White happened. You see, one of my favorite things about sports is the unpredictability. I sit here with my stats prognosticating all day and at the end of it, I have no idea who will win (well, sometimes I have a pretty good idea, *cough* Alabama vs. Notre Dame *cough*). Anyway, Davis and White were very good - great balance and their dance form never faltered. Problem is, they were too good. The competition was basically over before the long program and I didn't stick around to see it.

Nordic Combined: I never got why these two disciplines were stuck together; it seems you just get inferior athletes at both.

Freestyle Skiing Moguls: Part of the low ranking for moguls is its early placement in the schedule, making it easy to forget. But part is the obtuse judging format: I know you want to stay upright, go fast, and get big air, but how are the components weighted? It was never explained and I have no clue why contestants got the scores they did. NBC's broadcast made some events but also failed on some, like the following:

Luge, Skeleton, Bobsled: These events are daring, dangerous, and decisive: fastest down the track wins. The problem: the viewing audience can never appreciate how fast they are going. I have long argued for these events NBC should set up a cameras that can see the whole course and show that angle as a picture-in-picture while the contestants go through their runs. You can still see them enter/exit turns, but also get a sense for how long the course is and how fast they're truly going. I know 90 mph is fast when they display the speedometer, but I want to see exactly what they're doing with silly little protection. I can only take so much of seeing the sleds whizz pass again and again with the occasional wall bump (and rare wipeout).

Pairs and Men's Figure Skating: This competition wasn't the same without Plushenko. I've watched Olympic figure skating intently since Lillehammer, and Plushenko is is the most powerful skater I've ever seen. He power through jumps like no one else; you could say he is the MJ of skating with the way he defies gravity. I'm not saying that Yuzuru Hanyu wouldn't have beaten him - the Japanese skater wasn't quite as powerful but executed his jumps and lines gracefully - but once Plushenko was out of the individual skate, this seemed like a done deal for Hanyu to win gold.

Curling: Caveat: I really enjoy curling. It's harder than it looks. But the broadcast schedule just isn't friendly to a sport that can last hours. Why NBC couldn't broadcast important matches in pieces like they do other events (cross country, biathlon, skiing), I will never know. To those with time in the early morning or during the day (when I watched most of pool play), I hope you enjoyed it.

Ski and Snowboard Halfpipe: Once it became apparent that A) the course was struggling and B) Shaun White wasn't himself, the air had left these events (literally). Still, congrats to the women who put on a show, including a touching tribute to fallen comrade Sarah Burke, and deserve this event.

Long-track Speed Skating: I marvel at the endurance that these athletes possess. The team pursuit is my favorite of this discipline: I love the idea that you're only as good as your weakest skater. Unlike short-track, where the best skaters dink around until the last few laps, these skaters are always on, trying to push, one more lap, one more lap, forever. I can't imagine training for something like this and that makes me respect the athletes tremendously.

Snowboard Parallel Slalom: I'm glad this was included in the Sochi games. I like the inherent fairness of being matched against one opponent and the bracket-style madness that ensues. All the "compete against the course" stuff is nice, but not when the courses break down. Anything that resembles March Madness has my attention.

Ski Jump: At least on the big hill. Besides Kamil Stoch blowing everyone away, my favorite jumper was silver medalist Noriaka Kasai, who is, oh, 41 years of age. This is an event where broadcasting made a difference: after the first few jumps, I began to pick up what things make a big jump: balance off the hill, good timing on the legs, stable and still body, good lean, and holding the jump through to the end. I like events where even untrained observers can see what's happening as it happens. The colorful distance lines at the bottom of the hill help as well: you can really see how much farther he was getting than the others.

Freestyle Skiing Aerials: Always exciting when you can take ski jump and add twists and flips. For me though, it was outshone by:

Ski and Snowboard Slopestyle: I felt drawn to this event because it seemed more similar to the tricks and jumps I would do as a kid at the resort near my home than the larger jumps that aerials require. It just seems a little more like real skiing, with poles and such, versus aerials. I can't wait for some of these jumps to get better and more athletes to start landing big tricks consistently.

Hockey: Hockey is one of my favorite sports to watch in general. It's soccer in a perfect form: faster and more physical, but with similar principles of passing, spacing, and rotating. It doesn't have the stoppages that basketball and football possess. It is a beautiful game.

I knocked them down a notch because, at least on the men's side, the Canadians had an air of invincibility about them. In subsequent matches, the Canadian men not only shut out the USA and Sweden, but shut down those offenses entirely. Team USA had what seemed like three turnovers for every shot, and as they got tired, resorted to dumping it into the zone and hoping. Sweden managed to possess the puck into Canada's space, only for puckhandlers to be directed into help defense. There was a lot of passing around and away from the goal and precious few shots at it. It was also unfortunate Finland's Tuuka Rask's was ill during the Sweden game, probably costing the second-best team in the tournament a shot against Canada.

On the women's side: holy mackerel. I still haven't computed how we lost that game. This was the much more exciting side of hockey this time around. As for Canada - they deserved to win. Sometimes you need some luck, and they seized it. Team USA - sorry, but you got tight. It happens. That's little consolation, but you gave us a great game.

Alpine Skiing: Alpine skiing just misses the top 5. The reasons it's this high are largely the downhill and Super G. These skiers go silly fast. It's incomprehensible. And while it sucks the course broke down on many of the disciplines, part of me is okay with that: the best skiers, the ones that post the fastest first run times, should have to dominate the second run in softer snow. It's a little unfair, but that's sports. And it was fun seeing Ted Ligety, Mikaela Shiffrin, and Bode Miller medal, the unquestionable star of the show was Slovenia's Tina Maze, whom I could always tell apart due to that bright green (another shoutout to the team Slovenia uniform designer). And how cool is it that in a sport measured to the hundredth of a second, Maze and Dominque Gisin of Switzerland tied for the gold in downhill? And how much cooler that each seemed excited for the other? Fun to watch.

And the top 5 are:

Biathlon: This sport has grown on me. The chaos of the mass start. The chaos of the pursuit. Mixed doubles. What's not to like?

In seriousness: I'm no dedicated cross-country skier or marksman, but I can imagine how hard it must be to power through a few kilometers, come to a range, somehow get your pulse down and breathing level, and then hit five targets the size of a golf ball (prone) or grapefruit (standing) from 50 meters away. What these athletes do on the range astounds me. As for how this differs from nordic combined, well, there is no dedicated shooting sport at the Winter Games, so these are the best shooters at the show. Add that to the mad dashes to the finish, the grueling uphill climbs, and you have a heck of a sport, brother.

Then there is the broadcast format, which definitely helped. You'll notice that with most of the best sports, NBC (in the States) had a lot to do with viewer enjoyment. In the pursuit: with all the different time splits, early and late leaders, and the fact that the presumed winner most often was still skiing for much of the broadcast, it seemed like pure chaos. Which is fantastic. Sometimes you need organization, sometimes holding back is necessary. The effect was I had no clue who was going to win for the majority of the contest. One person would lead the standings as the early finisher. Several people would have the fastest splits at various parts of the race. And the camera would often zoom on the actual leader still skiing, and I had no idea how much further he/she had to go. For some reason it just spoke to me.

And that's just the pursuit! The mass start isn't quite as good, but it was fun to see Darya Domracheva of Belarus put away the competition kilometer after kilometer. And I won't lie and say this high ranking wasn't also affected by the awesomeness of seeing Ole Einar Bjorndalen win a ludicrous 2 gold medals at age 40 (with a legitimate shot at a third, though let's not bring that up) to become the most decorated Winter Olympian of all time. Tell me how this guy won the men's sprint. Tell me. Amazing.

Ski and Snowboard Cross: Another event with a proper does of chaos: whenever you can throw people who want to go fast together on a course that is too small for all of them, and add obstacles and jumps, it's a no-brainer. I loved seeing guys top the Kremlin, try to get a little too much air, and the wipeout at the end, often skidding on their stomachs to qualifications and medals. Sign me up for any sport where it's almost guaranteed someone will crash spectacularly. The personalities weren't bad either - the ridiculous French ski team led by the effervescent Jean-Frederic Chapuis (ski) was especially fun to watch. And how Alex Diebold made a pass on the final turn in snowboard cross to get bronze is beyond me. Chaos reigns!

Image from Deadspin

Cross-country Skiing: Speaking of chaos - is there any other sport in which it consistently seems obvious who will win for the first hour plus, only to see it devolve in a mad sprint to the finish where anyone could win? And this is a race where the beginning and middle are as compelling as the end.

I've dabbled in cross-country in the past, and it is no exercise for the faint of heart. It's grueling and punishing, hours and hours of a motion that's just natural enough to pick up but feels wrong to your legs, hips and core the whole time. The immense physical toll these events take is amazing, and that doesn't even get to the toughest part: the mental challenge. Through miles and miles of snow, skiers have to keep their cool, maintain a mental image of their race positioning, how fast they're going, how much energy they can expend climbing the next hill, how much energy their opponents have, whether to push the pace or to pull it back... it goes on and on and on. And that may be the toughest part. Unlike track races where there's either a stadium and therefore fans, or a defined route with landmarks and scenery (marathon), these athletes are so often on their own, with only the black of the surrounding deaden trees breaking up the white of the endless snow.

I not only can't imagine myself competing in cross-country, I can't imagine myself wanting to compete. It's insane. It's pure physical toil. And then you add a sprint to the finish may be the best few minutes in winter sports. It's always compelling and leaders always fall as those that have wisely saved their strength surge to the front. Seriously: a sport where after the sprint, the contestants uniformly collapse at the finish and just lay on the snow, panting? Sign me up! The NBC commentating crew were fantastic. Al Trautwig, the play-by-play man, was fantastic. He was the Gus Johnson of the Games and had me wondering how we can get him to announce major sports. NBC did a good job of breaking up coverage, coming and going so you could get a sense for how long the races are but didn't get bored watching the same thing for hours. During the weekend afternoon time slots, cross-country were events not to be missed.

Image from SB Nation

Short-track Speed Skating: Normally, this is my favorite event. But it was let down somewhat by its signature race, the men's 5000m relay. Short-track usually involves five skaters vying for three medals on a track that really holds four. The speeds are dizzying and it looks like most of the time, the skaters are holding on by the seat of their pants. It seems all it takes is a tap from another skater and you go flying into the wall with blades tied to your feet. The fact that one person falling can easily take out the other four races raises the stakes and the unintentional comedy. One of my favorite short-track moments was when the two Korean skaters leading the pack took each other out during the men's 1500 only to see discarded Korean Viktor Ahn finish for the bronze (more on Viktor later).

But the relay is just mad. Five teams of three skaters, each skating a lap and a half before pushing the next skater up? And they skate 45 laps? There are so many chances for spectacular wipeouts that this truly is must-see-TV. Unfortunately, in Sochi, two of the teams crashed on their own right out of the gate and a third midway through the race. And despite Team USA's heroic taking of the lead with 15 laps left, I don't think anyone really believed we were going to beat the Russian juggernaut, especially given the general karma around the American skaters. The Russian win, while exciting, was more of a coronation. I mean, they set an Olympic Record with Viktor basically celebrating during the last turn. It was a Usain Bolt-level domination.

Fortunately for skating, they had Viktor Ahn. I've only watched short-track seriously since Salt Lake 2002, but over the last 12 years, I've never seen anyone dominate like Viktor. Not Apollo Ohno, not anybody. That Viktor dominated Sochi while the South Koreans didn't win a single short track must have been especially sweet for the man disowned by that country's skating team. Schadenfreude is always a hollow feeling, and Viktor has extended an olive leaf to his birth country, but it seemed fitting that his success came during a Games were they sorely needed him.

Image from LA Times

The most astonishing thing is how Viktor does it: he makes each race seem easy. Younger and more athletic skaters would pump their arms and legs furiously trying to get speed and make passes, left arms reaching down for balance on turns. Viktor glided with hands clasped firmly behind his back, generating all his power with his lower body, perfectly balanced, never worried. Time after time, he'd hang at the end of the pack until the last few laps where he would break into a sprint. I saw him pass two skaters on an outside track. An outside track! Another race, he zoomed in during a turn to pass someone on the inside for the lead. The gall! It looked like he ways toying with the other skaters, wondering if he should put his full effort forth, knowing that he had a gear that no one else had. Watching the Olympics is about watching the best in the world, and Viktor Ahn left no doubt.

Ladies Figure Skating: Okay, so there was a little controversy over Adelina Sotnikova's 6 point win over favorite Yuna Kim (an aside: being the favorite rarely worked out at these games. And I hate when announcers say things like: so-and-so is x minutes away from a win/title. Leads don't hold up. The other team/player have just as much time to come back. As a competitor, you're never playing against the clock (you do have to manage it), you're playing the other team and you can't let up. Yuna Kim's lead going into the long program was fractions of a point. She wasn't 4 minutes from a gold medal, she was 4 minutes from ruin and despair, and the fact that she pulled off that amazing performance should be lauded).

But I dare anyone that A) really watched how the skaters skated and B) knows the difference between a lutz, axel, and toe loop, to tell me Adelina shouldn't have won. Maybe the deficit should have been smaller, but who cares? A gold medal is a gold medal. She won the night by:

  1. Skating the toughest program. Athletes that push boundaries and do things others are afraid of should be rewarded for trying, much less pulling it off.
  2. Skating cleanly. Outside of one stumble on a jump, she skated beautiful lines and spun gracefully. 2 spins here and there proved Yuna Kim's undoing, as she got just wide with her loop.
  3. She owned the night. First - figure skating absolutely is an athletic achievement. It doesn't fit my classical definition of a sport in which winners and losers are determined by something definite, not on someone's expert opinion. Instead, skating is a performance. What are performances designed to do? In a word: stun. When I got to a concert, I want to be left speechless. When I see a Broadway show, I want it to be good enough to warrant me leaping to my feet in applause. And when I watch figure skating, I want skaters that take the crowd with them on a journey, draw them in, and stun them with bedazzling acts. That's what Sotnikova did. So what that she had the Russian crowd behind her? That's home-ice advantage! The judges should absolutely be influenced by the way she lifted the crowd to its feet and brought the roof down. Yulia Lipnitskaya is Russian and she didn't do that. It's too bad that Yuna's peak couldn't have come when Korea hosts the Games in 4 years, and that takes nothing away from her as a great, great skater. But on that night, Adelina had the best performance, bar none. She stunned me, stunned the crowd, stunned the judges, and amazingly, stunned herself.
Having said that: holy cow, Yuna Kim!! I have no idea how she sat in the back as 5 skaters performed, how she held it together despite hearing thunderous applause for Adelina. Figure skating is such as fickle sport - I saw what 4 minutes could do to Michelle Kwan, the best skater I've ever seen. Part of me was worried that Yuna might come out and fall. Maybe even fall badly. But she came out and dominated, powered through jumps to her very last one. I won't argue that she was the most graceful skater of the night, but a little looseness and a breathtaking performance by the young Russian left Yuna a very respectable Silver.

And we haven't even gotten to Carolina Kostner! She put aside years of disappointment to own the ice for 4 minutes. I said that a skater's job is to stun. Barring that, perhaps the second loftiest platitude I can give is this: I wanted Kostner to keep skating. It seemed cruel that her moment, this perfect moment where she finally pulled it off, had to end. And when it did, she looked so full of joy that I couldn't help but feel like it was one of the best moments of the Games (and that was all before Adelina and Yuna skated!). 

Yuna's the best in the world. Adelina was the best on that night. And the athlete I was most proud of for medaling was Carolina Costner. And I haven't even mentioned the stories of the other skaters, who were magnificent. This is what made ladies figure skating the most compelling, drama-filled, exciting event of these Games.

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