Why snowboard cross beats old-timey Olympic sports. Plus: What actually happens at a curling practice?

Scenes from the Olympics.
Feb. 17 2010 1:13 AM

Dispatch From the Winter Games

Why snowboard cross beats old-timey Olympic sports. Plus: What actually happens at a curling practice?

This is the second of Seth Stevenson's three dispatches from the Winter Olympics. In his first piece, Stevenson asked whether the Vancouver Games are doomed and revealed his crush on a French biathlete. In his third dispatch, Stevenson compares Shaun White to a Cuban cigar or a glass of vintage Dom Pérignon. Check out Slate's complete coverage of the 2010 Winter Olympics.

American snowboard cross gold medalist Seth Wescott. Click image to expand.
American snowboard cross gold medalist Seth Wescott

Each Olympic nation issues matching puffy parkas to its athletes, coaches, and assorted hangers-on. Red and white for the Russians. Blue and yellow for the Ukrainians. Blinding orange for the Dutch. When these groups mix on the Vancouver streets, they look like schools of tropical fish meeting as they nibble at a coral reef.

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

Up at Cypress Mountain, an hour north of the city, you still see the puffy parkas. But you also see Afro wigs, jester hats, ultra-baggy cargo pants, and other accoutrements of the X Games crowd. It's a slightly tweaked Olympic spirit up here as we prepare for the men's snowboard cross finals. Rush and Led Zeppelin blare across the slopes from the outdoor speakers. A man standing next to me cracks a series of marijuana-related (and quite possibly—based on the man's eyes, which are as red as the maple leaf on a Canadian flag—marijuana-fueled) jokes about Ross Rebagliati, the Canadian snowboarder who tested positive for weed after winning a gold medal in 1998.

"How many Canadians does it take to win a gold medal?" asks the blazed-out dude. "One—and an eighth," he answers himself. "How do you know when Canadians win gold? Because they're the highest people on the podium."

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I always find myself a little underwhelmed by winter sports like alpine skiing and bobsleigh in which the competitors race against the clock. There's something not quite satisfying about that climactic moment when the crowd looks at a digital display to tell them who won the race. The beauty of snowboard cross, one of my favorite events here, is that four 'boarders are on the course together at the same time—bumping and grinding, edging one another out of the way, looking back to see who's gaining.

I've stationed myself at the end of the course, where the 'boarders make one final jump and then rocket their way across the finish line. We've seen a couple of photo finishes where guys launch off the jump into the air at the same time and then hit the ground and tuck to glory. When they dig in an edge to slow down after they cross the finish line, their boards throw a thick fountain of snow into the media pit, leaving writers and photographers to brush the crystals from their faces. (The crowd only sees this one tiny slice of the race. We watch the rest on a big video-display.)

The medal heat includes defending champ Seth Wescott, his American teammate Nate Holland, a young Frenchman named Tony Ramoin, and Canadian crowd favorite Mike Robertson. Wescott is last coming out of the gate, and remains in fourth place for the whole first half of the course. When Holland leans too far forward, spins out, and loses momentum, Wescott glides by into bronze position. He passes the French dude on a turn for silver. And then, when Robertson makes the smallest of miscues—unnoticeable to the crowd, but apparently enough to slow his speed—Wescott leaps ahead by the length of a snowboard boot and never relinquishes the lead.

Asked how he was able to go from worst to first after his bad start, Wescott answers, "I just snowboarded better." Which is fair enough. The U.S. team's handler whisks Wescott away soon after, uttering the line that has become the "I'm going to Disney World!" of the Olympics: "OK, no more questions, we've gotta head to doping."

The U.S. snowboard cross team competes in baggy fake jeans and fake flannel. Apparently, this is because Holland decided snowboarding was no place for a tight-pants "emo look." The jeans are actually made of Gore-Tex. But I'm still calling Wescott's win the best denim-clad sports performance since Tom Cruise's volleyball scene in Top Gun.

Back in Vancouver, at the curling rink, the fashion statements are a little less defiant. For their epic intra-Scandinavian grudge match against Sweden, the Danish women don pleated skirts, black tights, and legwarmers, looking just a little retro. The Norwegian men have opted for crazy, red, white, and blue harlequin-pants, made by the same company that supplies golfer John Daly with his eye-assaulting trousers. (These Norwegians are the punk rockers of Olympic curling. They bring the average age of the event's entrants down by 15 years—and bring the average hair-gel load up by at least a few ounces.)

But generally the curlers are a frumpy bunch. Most compete in black, poly-blend slacks that I'd describe as "waiter pants." The German team could not look more like dads at a barbecue. It doesn't help that everyone's toting around pieces of equipment that look and function a whole lot like kitchen mops.

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