This is not your father’s Winter Olympics. It may not even be your older brother’s. Salt Lake City is giving us a hip, so very now Winter Olympics, with exuberant young competitors to match. As 18-year-old Kelly Clark said on Sunday after she had won a gold medal, “It means a lot to me, and all of the rest of America. We’ve had a tough few months. It’s important to give people something to have pride in.”
Kelly was first in the women’s halfpipe competition, and if you don’t know what that is, or why you should be thrilled, you are not at all now, and probably think Sonia Henie is still around. Anyway halfpipe competition is snowboard competition, and a snowboard is like a skateboard, except that a snowboard is ridden down a course dug into a mountainside, and a skateboard belongs on city streets. The International Olympic Committee sanctioned snowboarding to show it was hip, and also to get more young people to watch television. NBC, which is doing the televising, wants this too, of course, and it is also being hip.
The little bios of the athletes are less sentimental now than in previous Olympics, and are meant to appeal more to the young. When it was clear, for example, that Finns would finish one, two in the Nordic combined, NBC showed a film clip of Samppa Lajunen, the winner, with his rock band in Finland. The band played its big hit, “The Lightest Man in Finland.” Then, when Lajunen neared the finish line, he tore off his hat, and you could see his blue hair. Then an excited announcer said it was “impossible to overestimate the importance” of his victory “to the psyche of Finland.” Apparently Finland gets very depressed this time of year.
Meanwhile back at the women’s halfpipe, there was another excited announcer. There is “massive public support,” she said, for snowboarding. But if there is, it is found among members of the hip hop generation, and not the people who remember Sonia Henie, or maybe even Peggy Fleming. It is the same with the event called moguls, where a skier races between bumps, and then jumps off ramps, and does helicopter spins in the air. On television, a little of this goes a long way, and is best appreciated by viewers in, or close to, their teens.
At the same time, some of the Winter Olympic events are spectacular — ski jumping, for one — and some have a goofy charm. Salt Lake City is predominantly Mormon — “a great religion,” President Bush said when he showed up for the opening ceremonies on Saturday — and though Mormons frown on smoking, drinking, and many other earthy pleasures, there is an effort underway to show they are fun-loving people who live in a fun-loving place. NBC cut away several times over the weekend to what looked like a big party for no apparent reason other than that.
The weekend also gave us a truly memorable example of over-reaching. Someone in Salt Lake City had decided to dress up the ceremony in which athletes were awarded their medals. In previous Olympics, winter and summer, the athletes just stood on boxes.
Sunday night, however, we saw a big geodesic dome. Dancers seemed to be writhing around on the outside of the dome. Then banners with acrobats wrapped in them dropped down from the ceiling inside the dome. It was as if Busby Berkeley had choreographed for Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey’s. Bob Costas, the capable NBC announcer, looked stunned. Most likely, he said, the elaborate setting would only be used that night. He was right, and on Monday the athletes were once again standing on boxes.
Monday also brought the Winter Olympics first disputed call. It was, in fact, a very bad call. Jamie Sale and David Pelletier won silver medals for second place in pairs figure skating, when they should have won gold medals for first place. Sale and Pelletier, who are Canadians, lost to Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze, who are Russians. Old right-wingers should take notice, and probably some of them will. Even the New York Times seemed annoyed. The frozen-faced judges who favored the Russians were from the old Communist bloc, while the other judges liked the Canadians.
John Corry is a former New York Times media reporter.