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For months, media has been reporting on the threat of terrorism in Sochi, rumors that anti-Western cells have already infiltrated the city and the Russian government's we-got-it-under-control security policies. Last month, the United States announced its plan to station battleships in the Black Sea, should an immediate emergency response be required. And all of this on the heels of the Kremlin's recently implemented policies criminalizing "homosexual propaganda," essentially making it illegal, in Russia, to acknowledge that there are gay Russians.
At some point in the conversation, George put his sandwich down and shook his head and said, "I just wish we could keep politics out of it."
I don't mean to vilify George. His point of view has more to do with sports in general than the Olympics in particular, and he's not alone in owning this opinion. In the age of Twitter and the 15-minutes sports-dedicated news cycle, I've heard the "let's keep sports between the lines" argument pop up frequently. Just a few weeks ago, former Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe wrote a piece on Deadspin.com chronicling his experience as an employee of the NFL and as an advocate for marriage equality. He surmised that he lost his job because of the latter. Pundits like ESPN's Colin Cowherd responded in much the way I'd imagine George and so many others would: Kluwe was paid to play a game, not to stir controversy. He was a distraction and, if the Vikings front office fired him because of his advocacy, they were warranted in doing so.
But then what's the point? If we neuter Kluwe's ability to speak out for the disenfranchised and allow him only to kick oblong leather balls into the air, then we're negating the power of sports.
And nowhere is this more true than at the Olympic Games. When the Hungarian water polo team beat the USSR 4-0 in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, it didn't matter that the Hungarians were advancing in the tournament or that they would go on to win gold. What mattered was that only two months before, in October, students in Budapest had incited a nationwide revolt against the Soviet puppet government in Hungary. The Soviets responded with air strikes and mass arrests. More than 2,000 Hungarians were killed and the revolution was squashed. When the Hungarian water polo team jumped into the pool with the Soviets that December, winning the match meant everything.
Sports aren't meaningful in a vacuum. Box scores and stat sheets aren't compelling if we ignore the fact that human beings are behind the numbers. This is why I watch the Olympics. It's why I'm happy the United States has included three openly gay athletes as part of its Sochi delegation. It's why I hope we kick Russia's ass on the slopes and across the ice. Sports are meaningful only as metaphor. Games only matter when you play for something.
by Jamie Rogers
When it comes to the Winter Olympics, we're all experts
The last time the Winter Olympics hit, I found myself in a bar in Wisdom, watching the games on TV with some self-styled ski jumping "experts." What luck. It was bitterly cold outside but indoors we sat in reverent silence, hovering over our whiskeys as we watched one stoic European after another coast down the long, icy ramp and into the bright Canadian sky.
"His head is up way too high," one of the experts would say.
"Only 118 meters?" the other would exclaim as Janne or Jakub or whoever came sliding to a stop at the bottom of the hill. "Shoot, he won't even medal with that."
What an education I got that afternoon. First, I learned that ski jumping is all about aerodynamics and speed, and that a positive mental attitude doesn't hurt either. I also learned, courtesy of my new friends, that becoming an expert on ski jumping really is just as simple as watching it on TV for an hour or so every four years. Because who's to say you're wrong, especially in a place like Wisdom?
That's the beauty of the Winter Olympics: Almost no one has a clue what they're talking about, which makes it the perfect topic of conversation for people who like to pretend they know stuff. By the time the broadcast moved on to speed skating, I was doing it too.
"You call that drafting?" I'd scoff at some poor German as he rounded the track looking like a lost seal in his skintight black suit. "Shani Davis is going to eat your lunch, pal."
It felt good. It felt right. Maybe I hadn't even thought about speed skating since the last Olympic Games, but I was comforted by the knowledge that no one else had either. We could be ignorant together, and there's no camaraderie quite like that which exists between idiots feigning intelligence in a group setting.
The only trouble is that sometimes you run into a person who actually does know a thing or two about these sports. Man, is that ever annoying.
Have you ever talked to an actual Dutch person about speed skating? Here's some advice: don't. At the last Winter Olympics they had a record-setting skater disqualified for switching lanes at the wrong time. It was nothing less than a national tragedy. News reports there showed people—we're talking full-grown adults—looking absolutely distraught in the streets. You'd have thought Heineken had gone bankrupt.
Or what about the Canadians and curling? As someone who's lived through the experience, I don't recommend getting stuck in Vancouver and trying to convince a Canadian locksmith to leave the warm glow of his TV on the day of the World Curling Championships. It's like asking a Brazilian to give you a ride to the airport during the World Cup finals.
That's why I prefer how we do it in the United States, where we have no particular area of expertise or interest when it comes to the Winter Olympics. Most of us are only even aware of these sports in brief stretches to begin with. During that time we can be armchair experts together, theorizing about luge conditions and regurgitating figure skating sound bites as if we actually know what any of it means.
We don't have to understand it to enjoy it. We just need to get a safe distance away from those who do understand it, since they've been waiting four years to drone on endlessly about this stuff. Trust me, you don't want to get caught in the middle of that. You might accidentally learn something.
by Ben Fowlkes
A mile in his boots
It's not the thrill of victory, but the glory of participation that elevates obscure Olympic sports
You know you've gotten yourself into a bad situation when you're breathing so hard that you can't aim your gun. And yet there I was, sprawled out in the January snow, rifle in hand, skis strapped to my feet. Each time my lungs struggled for air, the tiny metal target 50 yards in the distance bobbed in and out of my rifle's sight.
Miss. Hit. Miss. Miss. Miss.
I had done a lot of stupid things for free T-shirts in my past, I told myself as I struggled to put my wet gloves back onto my numb hands, but this was by far the stupidest. I was participating in the 2012 Seeley Lake Challenge Biathlon, a combination of cross-country skiing and target shooting. It had seemed like a good idea when I signed up weeks earlier from the comfort of my own home, probably while wearing fuzzy socks and sipping hot tea. It was a short course, geared toward beginners, with firearms experts on-site to help participants who didn't regularly shoot. It was the biathlon's equivalent of a "fun run," but at the moment I wasn't having much fun.