Loving sports that puzzle others

For most Americans, biathlon, luge and bobsled are just plain weird. And if you mention nordic combined or skeleton in casual conversation, you’ll probably have some explaining to do.

Most Americans don’t think about these sports except maybe every four years, and even then, the Winter Olympics only briefly remind them that such things exist. It doesn’t sink in that people do them otherwise.

Well, if loving these sports makes me a weirdo, so be it.

Growing up in Alabama, I was like most Americans. Because my grandparents lived in Saranac Lake, I was probably more aware of the 1980 Games in Lake Placid than most kids, but still, learning about the Winter Olympic sports from a coloring book my grandparents gave me was like learning about mythical beasts. Some, like hockey, alpine skiing and figure skating, were things I knew were normal to people in northern climes, even if they were foreign to me. Bobsled looked eccentric but exciting; as a 5-year-old, I could totally imagine how fun it would be to ride in one of those things. Biathlon? Skiing with guns sure sounded interesting, but it also seemed like the product of someone’s wild imagination.

When one moves here, though, it becomes real. I came up full-time in 1999, and at my first job, a line cook at a Lake Placid restaurant, I was amazed to find myself surrounded by athletes in these strange sports. Three of them worked with me, and many others hung out there. Two of those former co-workers, luger Courtney Zablocki and biathlete Haley Johnson, eventually made the Olympics.

In the years that followed, the more local athletes excelled in these sports, the more attention I paid to them. They grew on me. Now it’s to the point where I’d rather watch a ski or biathlon race than a baseball or football game.

Part of that is me becoming gradually disgusted by pro and college team sports. There’s just so much money involved now in those things, and it’s such a corrupting influence. Try as I might to watch them – and I do try from time to time – most of the old thrill doesn’t come back.

Part of my interest is professional. As a journalist, it’s my job to pay attention to local people excelling in world-class pursuits. Especially after covering them at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Canada, I feel a connection.

Another part of my connection is communal. I love living here, and part of my community pride is tied up in the winter sports culture – and the world-class competitors it produces. Skiing is a big part of our lives, and when I and my kids go out, we can imagine being like Bill Demong, Andrew Weibrecht, Annelies Cook, Lowell Bailey or Tim Burke. Our neighbors’ kid does luge, and I can imagine her looking up to Erin Hamlin and Chris Mazdzer. Unlike the stars of the NFL, NBA or Major League Baseball, our Olympians are folks from our own small towns whom we can actually meet from time to time.

They’re not mega-rich like pro athletes; when they work incredibly hard, it’s not for millions but for pure sporting motives. Many have to go out and beg for donations to pay for their airfare. There’s a certain asceticism in that which can free one to be better, as an athlete and a person, than one would be with more comfort and distractions. They’re better role models.

In all this – winter sports culture and purity of motive – they echo the spirit of the last small-town Olympics, here in 1980. Those games focused on the athletes and their actual competition, and on hospitality to the people who came to see it. The modern games, while still good, are much more full of distracting sideshows. One has to work to maintain focus on the point.

It’s a point that, I’m sad to say, I think President Obama missed when he picked his delegation to the upcoming Olympics in Sochi, Russia. He sent Vice President Joe Biden to Vancouver in 2010 – the VP made a goofy face for my camera at the Whistler ski jumps – but this time he’s sending no top member of his administration, a signal that he doesn’t think the Winter Games are worth so much.

He’s turned the delegation into a political statement by sending three openly gay delegates to protest Russia’s new anti-homosexual laws. Let me be clear: These laws are bad, and the U.S. president is right to object to them, but not through the Olympics. The Olympic spirit calls nations to set aside their conflicts – even the bloodiest of wars – and focus on athletics instead.

Granted, politics always worms its way in. During our own ’80 Games, Americans protested the Soviets’ occupation of Afghanistan, which sure sounds ironic now considering our country’s occupation of that country. Still, it would be nice if our president set a better example of the Olympic spirit.

Then again, I get it. Like me growing up in Alabama, President Obama and his advisors don’t fully appreciate the Winter Olympics. Most Americans don’t. Maybe he needs to spend some time in Lake Placid.