Winter Games are relevant again
VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- If you look at it by the raw numbers, the conclusion should be obvious that the Winter Olympics are back as a major event. The United States won gold in bobsled for the first time since 1948. The U.S. ski team won eight Alpine medals, its most ever. The U.S. won gold and silver in the European-dominated Nordic combined for the first time ever. The Americans won 37 medals, the most of any country in any single Winter Games.
The numbers make it easy, but relying on something as temporary and impersonal as statistics is a colossal mistake, the same as suggesting baseball didn't have a drug problem simply because people still bought tickets.
No, you have to go deeper than the numbers, down to the soul of why people watch sports, and what it is about those rare instances on the ice or on the field that can unify a country, even briefly.
Sunday's gold-medal game between the United States and Canada was one of those moments when non-sports fans, non-hockey fans, were drawn to the event not because they were dying to find out whether Ryan Getzlaf's size could neutralize Zach Parise's speed, but because by the time the game was to be played, the Olympics had arrived at a place it had not in many years: at the middle of the national conversation.
In the 200-channel, 24/7 universe, these large-scale connecting moments are in short supply, whether in sport or popular culture. For every fanatic who watched "The Wire," convinced it was the greatest show American television has ever produced (it is), there were millions more who were watching "Survivor," or have never seen the show.
The days of the entire nation watching the final episode of "M*A*S*H" in unison is a thing of the past. Too many channels with too little time -- in the land of the DVR and tape delay -- make it difficult for any single event to gain the kind of traction at the watercooler the Olympics once enjoyed.
The change in the television dynamic is only part of it. The other part is the watercooler itself. In a world of downsizing and layoffs and home offices, even the office may not be as easily unified by popular culture as it once was.
But somehow over the past two and a half weeks, America came together over an event that seemed to have lost a fair amount of its punch. The death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili hours before the opening ceremonies left the Games hollow. Entering the Games, even the athletes talked about the seeming lack of interest from the American audience. The Winter Olympics were thought to be too distant, the sports too European without a history of American success.
Two things happened, though. The first: American stars elevated their sports.
The men's hockey team was great. Less than two hours after losing the gold-medal game to Canada, American forward Patrick Kane said he was already thinking about Sochi in 2014 "for revenge." Lindsey Vonn entered the Games as a star and left a bigger one. Bode Miller arrived in Vancouver aloof but emerged redeemed. Shaun White and Apolo Ohno were spectacular, adding a measure of electricity to a Games that bordered on the staid.
The second: The Winter Olympics, once the foreign province of Europe, became the North American Games. The backdrop of Vancouver gave the Games a special feel. The American medal haul was a record, but so too was the 14 gold medals collected by host country Canada.
The Americans and Canadians fought each other for the top of the podium, even in sports in which neither had been an overwhelming favorite -- women's bobsled, skeleton and speedskating, for example. Germany earned its luge medals, but both the U.S. and Canada took spots on the podium in bobsled, including a spectacular performance by the U.S. men in the four-man competition and the Canadian women.
Tremendous battles were fought. In women's hockey, Canada, the United States and Finland won medals, in that order. The United States and Canada were the face of hockey, the biggest team sport of the Games, culminating with the men's gold-medal game. The Olympics would have taken on a decidedly different view if the gold-medal game had been played between the Czech Republic and Sweden. And if you're NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, your worst nightmare just came true. The NHL could not have done for the sport of hockey what Sunday's gold-medal game did, and if the league prohibits players from participating in the Games, it will undermine the sport.
Buzz is one thing, and people were certainly talking about the Olympics, but the residual effect of these Games will be felt in recruiting when it comes time for elite-level kids across the country to take an interest in sports. One of the measures of the U.S. success in these Games will be based on the quality of athletes who now gravitate toward skiing, bobsled, luge, men's and women's hockey and, yes, even Nordic combined.
The Games are over. The torch has been passed from Vancouver to Sochi, with old- and new-school Russian hockey legends Vladislav Tretiak and Alex Ovechkin dancing with young kids at the closing ceremonies Sunday night, and they left something surprising and memorable -- the best combination of all.
Vancouver gave people something to talk about. They are talking today, and will be talking tomorrow. And that is how it should be, because sports only live longest in the imagination.
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston " and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.