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Friday, February 22, 2002
Updated: May 31, 2:10 PM ET
Thumbing through Winter Games

By Bill Simmons
Page 2 columnist

Remember when the Winter Olympics truly mattered? I keep thinking back to 1980 in Lake Placid, the good old days, when I was little and the Olympics had my undivided attention.

Eric Heiden
When Eric Heiden won five gold medals in 1980, we had no choice but to watch the Games.
I can still remember Eric Heiden rolling off gold after gold, all the ABC promos for "That's Incredible," Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner getting knocked out of the pairs, lugers and bobsledders careening into haystacks, and every twist and turn with the U.S. hockey team (which remains the greatest two-week sporting ride of my lifetime).

Doesn't seem that long ago. Everything was different back then, including us. There wasn't anything else on TV, the graphics were crude, the announcers stunk, puff pieces didn't even exist ... you just kind of watched. There wasn't anything else to do. We didn't have cable, DirecTV, VCRs, DVDs, video games, computers, e-mail or the Internet. So when the Olympics came around, it was a pretty big deal. That's why we loved them so much.

Now? The Olympics have become one of those Water Cooler Events Du'Jour, a TV-driven extravaganza to steal our attention for two weeks until something else comes along -- the NBA Finals, "The Sopranos," "Survivor," the Super Bowl, the Grammys, March Madness, the World Series, the Oscars, a two-part mini-series about O.J. or whatever else. How did this happen? Maybe it's a reflection of our society more than anything.

And everything is so slickly packaged these days -- sugary puff pieces, the studio hosts pontificating from their smug little thrones, snazzy camera angles and graphics, esperate athletes trying anything to stand out to increase their commercial appeal (goofy hair, carrying pictures of dead relatives, etc.), the tie-ins with the unwatchable Tonight Show" -- that sometimes it's impossible to watch for extended stretches, lest you start dry-heaving. There's an "In one ear and out the other" feel to these Games, isn't there?

Hey, it doesn't mean I'm not watching. Maybe I haven't been consistently riveted by the events, but I've still been intrigued, disgusted and occasionally absorbed. Here's my scorecard through two weeks of Olympics action:

Sarah Hughes
Sarah Hughes tossed a no-hitter in her long program and set the stage for a dramatic finish.
THUMBS UP... for women's figure skating, one of the few events that the Sports Gal and I can enjoy together. She enjoys the music, the artistry, the outfits, the programs, the drama and everything else. ... I'm relishing the "Is she gonna wipe out on this jump?" factor and trying to decide if it's legal to be attracted to some of these skaters. Everyone's happy.

Some of my favorite wrinkles with the figure skating:

  • I like the simplicity of it all. If you fall, you lose. If you stay upright, hit your jumps and remain somewhat original, you win. Pretty cut and dried. During the women's final Thursday night, Sarah Hughes leapfrogged the three favorites by tossing a no-hitter in her long program, then holding on for dear life as each of them slipped at least once during their programs. It was incredibly exciting. Seriously.

  • Don't you love some of the musical choices, especially with the pairs events? Why is it funny to see people trying to dance on skates in rhythm to Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean"? Hits my funny bone every time. And isn't it goofy how so many routines follow the same musical formula -- the slow song ("I'm very serious right now") that merges into the upbeat song ("I'm happy! I'm peppy!"), then downshifts to another slow song for the emotional ending ("I'm extremely serious again"). This never fails to crack me up. I love the happy/peppy part. I'm happy! I'm peppy! I'm happy! I'm peppy!

  • All the males look like they raided Siegfred & Roy's closet. Where do you buy shirts like these? Are they blouses? What's the difference between a male figure skater's shirt and a blouse? Can somebody explain this to me?

  • When the skaters get crappy scores and try to pretend they're not disappointed. This should be its own event -- the "Putting on a Happy Face" Event.

    Evgeni Plushenko
    Can someone please explain the difference between a male figure skater's shirt and a blouse?
  • During the pairs events, watching some of the male skaters trying to drum up sexual tension with their partner always kills me, especially those staged "We're almost kissing our faces are so close" moments. Not since Danny Pintauro tried to pick up chicks on "Who's The Boss?" has our collective gullability been underestimated this egregiously.

  • Every time a female skater finishes a routine and cruises around to pick up flowers off the ice, you always get those flashbacks to Lynn-Holly Johnson stumbling around blind at the end of "Ice Castles," undoubtedly one of the five worst sports movies of all-time. Couldn't one of these B-level skaters hire Robby Benson, pretend they're blind and re-enact the ending? Just for me?

    THUMBS DOWN ... to the people who run figure skating, for failing to adopt my "All male figure skaters should do their performances in the same rink at the exact same time" idea. That would have been fun.

    THUMBS UP ... for the announcers. The Unintentional Comedy Rating has gone through the roof for two consecutive weeks. Basically, if you have two arms, two legs and a head and you ever participated in a specific event, you're eligible to become an Olympic analyst (I think one of the janitors at the Delta Center provided color for the curling semifinals this week). My favorite announcer moment happened Wednesday, when the analyst du 'jour praised one of the competitors during a skeleton run for his "relaxed aggressiveness." Relaxed aggressiveness? Isn't that what happens when you mix Red Bull and Rohypnol? Could somebody hold me, please?

    THUMBS DOWN ... for the figure skating announcers. Way too much talking. I don't need to know that a triple-axel or toe-loop is coming up, because, frankly, I don't care. Where's the element of surprise? And why do I need someone to tell me that they botched a landing because they landed on two feet, or that a catastrophic fall might have hindered their medal chances (oh, really?). Just shut up. Bud Collins is the only person who should ever be allowed to talk and make orgasmic noises during a sporting event.

    And don't you miss Dick Button? I'll never forget watching the '92 Olympics during my senior year in college, when they were holding the exhibition event for everyone who had medaled (lots of glitz, low-risk jumps ... basically an excuse for ABC to milk one more night of figure skating ratings). So Russia's Victor Petrenko (who had just won the gold) comes out and tries his patented triple-toe loop, even though it's an exhibition, and Button yells, "Put that thing away, Victor! Somebody tell Victor the competition is over!" Some things you just don't forget ... and Dick Button shrieking, "Put that thing away, Victor!" ranks right up there. Now these are the Olympic moments that Jim McKay should be recounting. And yet I digress ...

    Apolo Anton Ohno
    Isn't it great to have an Apolo back in your life?
    THUMBS UP ... for some of these Olympian names. Isn't it good to have an "Apolo" back in your life, a mere 16 years after the tragic Creed-Drago fight? And does anything beat a female skater named "Slutskaya"?

    THUMBS DOWN ... for those endless "Friends" promos, courtesy of NBC. At this point, Joey could profess his love for Rachel, and they could consummate it with a live sex act, and I wouldn't watch that show next week. OK, that's a lie.

    THUMBS UP ... for the medal ceremonies. Those never get old. You know what scares me? Other than the Canadian and U.S. national anthems, the song that always gets me is the Russian anthem -- I keep having good-natured flashbacks to Ivan Drago and Nikolai Volkoff from the '80s. Hey, have you ever tried to sing along to the Russian anthem and made up fake words for it? Um ... me neither.

    THUMBS DOWN ... to the Russians in general. You know what? Let them pull out of the Games. Who needs them? They've been making excuses ever since we saved their butts in World War II. Good riddance.

    (That's probably the only country that brings out my xenophobic side. Does anyone else enjoy bashing the Russians? All the guys have that glazed, "If I screw up, I'm going to be schlepping mink carcasses next week" look about them, and all the females always look like they're one mess-up away from their first black-market porn movie. I've been cracking bread-line jokes for two straight weeks. Screw 'em. Between the Cuban Missile Crisis, "Red Dawn" and "The Day After," you're never getting me to trust those guys, and I'm never rooting for them.

    Irina Slutskaya
    The Sports Guy wouldn't have shed a tear if Irina Slutskaya and the rest of the Russian team had left the Games.
    (Whoops ... am I using my out-loud voice again? Sorry about that.)

    THUMBS UP ... to NBC for toning down the Puff Piece Factor this year and showing more uninterrupted events. Good to see they learned from the debacle in Sydney. It's amazing how simple sports broadcasting can be at times.

    THUMBS DOWN ... to NBC for ... well, because of my ESPN allegiances, it would be hypocritical for me to bash announcers and studio hosts from other TV networks when I'm writing on the official website for another network. At least that's what the bosses tell me. Once again, it's time for another telepathic rant:

  • First of all ... (telepathic rant).

  • And don't even get me started on ... (telepathic rant, part 2).

  • And if that's not bad enough ... (telepathic rant, part 3).

    Phewwwww. Glad I got that out of my system.

    Marie Reine Le Gougne
    The controversy with the French skating judge made for terrific theater.
    THUMBS UP ... for the controversy with the French and Russian judges. Nothing beats a good controversy with a happy ending, even if they copped out by giving both the Canadian team and the Russians gold medals. Why not remove the French judge, institute the alternate judge's marks, reconfigure the scoring and see who wins. Isn't that why they have alternate judges? This really peeved me for some reason.

    THUMBS DOWN ... for all the horrifying TV close-ups of the competitors, especially during figure skating. And you thought playoff baseball was bad; NBC is determined to show us whiteheads, scars, yellow teeth, moles with hair coming out of them, eye boogers, saliva strands dangling from people's mouths, nose hairs ... it's enough to make you steer your children away from being an Olympic athlete. "Saturday Night Live" should have a skit where figure skaters head into the area to wait for their scores, and the cameras are zooming up their noses and inside their mouths. It wouldn't be far off from reality.

    THUMBS UP ... for the lighting of the Olympic Torch with the 1980 Olympic Hockey Team. Pass the goosebumps, please.

    THUMBS DOWN ... that Mike Eruzione (a k a, America's Houseguest) will milk another 10 years of speaking gigs and free dinners out of this. Shouldn't there be a statute of limitations on somebody profiting from a single athletic achievement? Can we pass some legislation here?

    THUMBS UP ... for all the skiing events. Especially when it's snowing outside, and people start wiping out left and right. Doesn't get much more entertaining than that. And while we're here, I enjoy the new camera that compares the runs of two skiiers at the same time (it's even more fun to watch when you're drunk). My favorite event is the Nordic Combined, if only because it sounds like something that would star Peter North, Lexus and Bunny Luv. The slalom is fun, too. And who else thinks the Super G event should be hosted by Warren G? Maybe in 2006. All right, I'm babbling.

    1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team
    The lighting of the Olympic torch was great, but Mike Eruzione's 15 minutes of fame are long over.
    THUMBS DOWN ... for everyone who jokes about the two-man luge and thinks they're re-inventing comedy as we know it. Hey, it's two guys lying on one another! Hey, I wouldn't want to learn how to do this event! Hey, shouldn't these guys buy each other a drink first?!?!?! Come on. It has been done. It all has been said.

    (And while we're on the subject, here's another routine that's gotten old:

    What's up with the biathalon? Shooting and skiing? Whose idea was this?

    Instead of shooting at targets, why couldn't the competitors shoot at live animals? That way you can hear announcers say things like, "Germany's Karl Mucusberger is in the lead after an outstanding run ... he finished the course in 2:27 and bagged three possums and two deer.
    Yada yada yada.)

    THUMBS UP ... for cross-country skiing and speedskating. Strangely exciting, especially down the stretch. I love the speedskating outfits. Those kill me. I want to walk around downtown Boston in a speedskating outfit some day and see what happens.

    THUMBS DOWN ... for curling. It has been the chic comedy angle of these games to make fun of the curlers, so I'll hold off, except to say one thing: If this can be an Olympic event, why can't actual bar shuffleboard? What about bowling? What about billiards? Or five-card stud? Or darts? Or Scrabble? Or Monopoly? Why draw the line at curling? Let's get every pseudo-sport in there, so I have a chance at an Olympic medal before I die.

    John LeClair
    Olympic hockey delivers the goods every four years ...
    THUMBS UP ... for the men's ice hockey. Sure, they ruined the Hoosiers Factor by including the professionals, and sure, by throwing these teams together, giving them two days of practice and expecting them to play as cohesive units, you're asking for a little too much ... but even with those changes, Olympic hockey still delivers the goods every four years. Why the NHL hasn't abolished the red line is one of the age-old questions of life.

    And how can you not be fired up for a USA-Canada or Canada-Russia final? Plus, I caught the last 10 minutes of the Belarus-Sweden upset, and that was more exciting than any Olympic event in years; I kept waiting to see Russell Crowe and Ron Eldard wearing their "Mystery, Alaska" jerseys. Gotta love Olympic hockey.

    THUMBS DOWN ... for the women's ice hockey. Lemme get this straight. There's no checking allowed. Body contact is permitted, but only if defenders are playing the puck, and they aren't allowed to throw their hips or shoulders into opponents. Also, female hockey players are considerably slower and less talented than men's hockey players.

    So to recap: Women's ice hockey is just like men's ice hockey, except the players are considerably slower and less talented, and there's no checking. Sounds like a winner. Gee, I can't believe it hasn't caught on professionally yet.

    THUMBS UP ... for short-track speedskating, maybe the only Olympic sport that has potential as a professional league (if they allowed designated laps for shoving and tripping). On Wednesday night, it reached the point where I was sitting through puff pieces just in case they showed another short-track heat. And what about the relay event, which multiplies the Collision Potential by about 100? Good times.

    THUMBS DOWN ... for the luge and bobsled events. What happened to the good old days, when people went careening into those scary haystacks half the time? Is there any skill to these events anymore? Is the equipment too good now? Couldn't they booby-trap the track with oil leaks, barbed wire, grenades and wild animals?

    Kim St-Pierre
    ... but women's hockey is a different story.
    THUMBS UP ... for the ski jumping. Even if nobody falls anymore. There's always that slim chance for "Wide World of Sports" opening potential ... even if it never happens.

    THUMBS DOWN ... for all these insta-events that America created so we could win more medals. Don't you get the feeling that they brought back "Skeleton" just to pad the medal total? And what about those X Games mogul events when skiiers do the flips and stuff? Come on ... did we really need to win more medals that badly? Why didn't we just make "Football" an Olympic event? Why not go the whole nine yards and create Olympic events called "Speaking Fluent English," "Sitcom Trivia" and "The Rock-And-Jock Hockey Game"?

    Here's my theory: If you're having all these events, at least make the medals in different sizes. For instance, marquee events like skating and skiing should have the biggest medals -- roughly the size of a salad plate -- but then the medals should shrink in size according to the irrelevance and improbability of the event. By the time you get to events like "Skeleton," they should be the size of a half-dollar or something.

    THUMBS UP ... for gimmick columns like these. Fun to write, easy to read.

    THUMBS DOWN ... because I never know how to end them.

    Bill Simmons writes three columns a week for Page 2.