Olympics Jerk Watch: Lolo Jones
Nominee: Lolo Jones
Home country: United States of America.
Known for: Hurdling, bobsledding, being Lolo Jones.
Why she might be a jerk: Lolo Jones perhaps first came to your attention in 2008, when her tragic personal backstory—she grew up poor and occasionally homeless before conquering adversity to become an All-American hurdler at Louisiana State—made her one of the top human interest stories of the Beijing Games. Or maybe you first heard about her around the London Olympics in 2012, when some people complained that Jones was cynically exploiting her past to win attention that she never would have merited by her athletic accomplishments alone. (She failed to reach the podium in both London and Beijing.) In a 2012 New York Times piece, Jeré Longman suggested that Jones—an enthusiastic and public virgin and Christian who nevertheless posed nude for ESPN the Magazine; a middling athlete who was receiving star-level coverage—was a world-class sellout. “Essentially, Jones has decided she will be whatever anyone wants her to be—vixen, virgin, victim—to draw attention to herself and the many products she endorses,” wrote Longman. To Longman and others, Jones’ choices seemed crass, and offensive.
After Jones failed to medal in London, it looked like her time in the public eye was over. Not so fast! In 2012 Jones was recruited to try out for the U.S. bobsled team. Lolo and behold, Jones made the team for the Sochi Games, and the old questions recurred: Was Jones chosen because of her skill, or her marketability? Some of the American bobsledders whom Jones beat out for an Olympic slot were also upset; one, Emily Azevedo, told USA Today that “I should have been working harder on gaining Twitter followers than gaining muscle mass.”
Ah, yes, Jones’ social media presence. It’s large and occasionally controversial. In July she posted a video to Vine in which she appeared to criticize the paltry training paychecks that American bobsledders received. (This did not endear her to her new teammates.) Jones also maintains an intermittently insensitive Twitter account on which she has been accused of mocking her fans’ relaxer-free hair, Trayvon Martin’s friend Rachel Jeantel, and the 2012 movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colo.
Why she might not be a jerk: In his Times piece, Longman acknowledged that the public judges male and female athletes by a double standard. This double standard has a lot to do with our disdain for Lolo Jones. Nobody cares if Michael Phelps shills for Subway or takes his shirt off for a magazine. So why does it rankle when Lolo Jones makes similar choices? The difference, I suppose, is that Michael Phelps is a much-decorated athlete, while Lolo Jones hasn’t won a single Olympic medal, and that it is grating to see Jones be treated like a star performer when she is anything but.
Then again, Lolo Jones was a very, very good hurdler. She was favored to win gold at the Beijing Olympics and probably would have if she hadn’t clipped one of the last hurdles. She also finished fourth in the 100-meter hurdles at the 2012 at age 30, which might have been seen as an inspirational story if everyone didn’t hate her so much. Then again again, there are a lot of athletes who’ve outperformed Jones in the Olympics who aren’t nearly as famous. (For instance, Dawn Harper, who beat Jones to win gold in 2008.)
And yet it isn’t Lolo Jones’ fault that people want her to endorse their products or pose for their magazines. If Jones declined these opportunities, it’s not as though the corporations seeking her services would rethink their marketing strategies and refrain from using attractive athletes as spokespeople. They’d just find some other attractive athlete to make famous.
Should we blame Jones for accepting these opportunities when they arise? Should we blame her for leveraging her looks into checks that her athletic abilities can’t cash? Maybe. But why should we blame Jones for choosing to make some money during the brief window of opportunity when she’s marketable? And why should we blame her for profiting off of her tragic backstory? It’s her backstory! She lived it. She’s free to do whatever she wants with it—exploit it, bury it, whatever.
As for the bobsled stuff, Jones certainly isn’t the first track star to transition to bobsled in hopes of additional Olympic glory. It’s not her fault that bobsledding is apparently the sort of sport where someone who has never done it before can become an Olympic-caliber performer in a year. And if it’s the case that the U.S. bobsled team selected her as a cynical ploy to get media attention, that’s not really her fault either. If you think she symbolizes everything that’s wrong with how we view female athletes, then I wouldn't argue with you. But in that case, she’s a symptom of that problem, not the cause.
As for her social media indiscretions, yeah, Lolo Jones should probably stay away from Twitter. But, then, shouldn’t we all?
Jerk Score: I’ll give Jones 1 out of 3 for style, because if she really wanted to exploit her poor childhood, she would compete in an outfit made of rags, à la Oliver Twist. 1.5 out of 3 for technical merit, because a true jerk would also be posting insensitive comments on Facebook, Google Plus, and Pinterest. 2.5 out of 3 for consistency, because she just keeps on coming back for the Olympics, regardless of whether or not anybody actually wants to see her there. And 0 out of 1 for “Did she do anything that 9 out of 10 Olympians wouldn’t also do if given the opportunity?” 5 out of 10 for Lolo Jones, who, while certainly overexposed, probably isn’t much of a jerk at all.
Previously in Olympics Jerk Watch: The Australian Skier Who Allegedly Made Millions Peddling Malware; The Swede Known as the “John McEnroe” of Curling; The Tongan Who Changed His Name to Get Money from a German Underwear Company.
Horse-Drawn Ski Racing Was Almost an Olympic Sport
If you’re like me, you’ve been watching the Winter Olympics and thinking, All these ski events are great, but they’d be even better if the skiers were being towed by a team of horses. With that in mind, imagine how thrilled I was to discover the great sport of skijoring, or, as I like to call it, “horse-drawn waterskiing on snow.” In skijoring, a skier hangs on to a rope attached to a horse (or a dog, or a snowmobile) and glides across the snow until she falls down or the horse gets tired. Eighty-six years ago, the sport was on the verge of becoming a full-fledged Olympic event. This is a discussion we need to revive immediately.
Skijoring is a Norwegian word that roughly translates as ski driving, or driving on skis; it’s taken from kjøring, which means driving, and ski, which means ski. In the following video, taken at a modern-day skijoring event in Montana, the skiers don’t look like they’re driving so much as holding on for dear life, but let’s not split semantic hairs:
Looks like fun, doesn’t it? As you can clearly see from the video, the sport of skijoring requires balance, agility, a talent for ring-grabbing, and a love for classic guitar-driven rock 'n' roll. In 2009 the Boston Globe reported that, these days, a “typical course runs 1,000 feet and features 12 slalom gates, six ‘jousting rings’ that a skier must grab, and three ramp-like jumps ranging from 2-6 feet in height." So, basically, it’s skiing meets the rodeo meets Medieval Times. Why isn’t this on every network in America?
Skijoring began in Norway in the 19th century as a way to speed the transmission of army dispatches, according to E. John B. Allen in The Culture and Sport of Skiing. It soon grew popular in many parts of the world among people with daredevil spirits and unfettered access to draft animals and rope. “Horsemanship was one of the aristocracy’s remaining differences from the urban masses, so the appeal of skijoring was a natural one,” writes Allen. “Children were pulled by dog and pony, British officers in India tried it behind a yak, Sami behind reindeer, and men from the industrial world behind motorcycle, car, and even airplane.”
Competitive skijoring was included in the Nordic Games—a nationalistic celebration of cold-weather sport that was the predecessor to the Winter Olympics—in the first decade of the 20th century, where it caught the eye of Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics. Coubertin was a fan of weird sports with militaristic overtones—he invented the modern pentathlon, a Summer Olympic event involving gunplay and horsemanship, as a test of skill for cavalry officers—so his appreciation for skijoring came as no big surprise. He expressed his hope that there might one day be room for skijoring in the Olympic Games. (Coubertin was not a huge fan of non-horse-drawn skiing, apparently. According to an essay in The Olympics at the Millennium, he thought downhill skiing “was hardly a sport to uphold his Olympic ideals of international peace and reconciliation shrouded under the auspices of antiquity.” I shudder to think what he would say about ice dancing.)
Coubertin eventually got his wish, as skijoring was made an Olympic demonstration sport at the St. Moritz Games, in 1928. These were the days when getting towed on skis by horses and/or dogs was a primary mode of transportation for much of the world, and yet only seven people competed in the mass-start skijoring event. And it was sort of boring. (Skiboring, you might say.) The event, which was held on a frozen lake, included no jumps or slaloms—just seven dudes on skis getting pulled behind riderless horses. When the race was concluded, apparently no one even bothered to write down the victors’ first names.
That was the end for skijoring at the Olympics. But it wasn’t the end for the sport. Skijoring is still practiced in Scandinavia, Switzerland, and in other remote northern regions where they apparently don’t have satellite cable. The sport has gained niche popularity in America, too, in places like Whitefish, Mont., home of the World Ski Joring Championships. Skijoring first became popular in Whitefish in the 1950s, apparently, “with just four guys in a bar talking about who was the best skier, who was the best drinker, and who was the best horseman.” But isn’t that how everything good in America got started?
Today the North American Ski Joring Association sanctions races across the country, and while modern skijorers still dream that the sport might one day return to the Olympics, this does not seem very likely. Even so, I’m willing to put in some work to make this happen. Just tell me whom to call, or provide me with a form letter that I can sign and mail, and I’ll do my part.
Why Do Figure Skaters Go to the “Kiss and Cry” to Get Their Scores?
Stefan Fatsis also read a version of this story on the Feb. 18 episode of Slate's sports podcast “Hang Up and Listen.”
The phrase “kiss and cry” is as firmly entrenched in modern figure skating as the triple Axel or Johnny Weir’s Instagram account.* But it wasn’t always so. Until the early 1980s, the place where skaters waited with their coaches to receive their marks from the judges marks was known as ... the place where skaters waited with their coaches to receive their marks from the judges.
According to the 2004 book Cracked Ice: Figure Skating’s Inner World by former skating judge Sonia Bianchetti Garbato of Italy, “kiss and cry” was coined by a Finnish skating official named Jane Erkko. Erkko was watching an ice dancing competition with some young skaters in the 1970s, and they noticed that the competitors kissed and cried while waiting for their scores. The expression “remained a joke among the skaters and with Jane as the place where the skaters would sit down after skating their programs,” Garbato wrote.
Erkko was on the organizing committee for the 1983 World Figure Skating Championships, which were held in Helsinki. According to Garbato, Erkko and the television producers for the event were looking over a map of the rink to discuss camera placement. When the “chief technician” asked about a spot just off the ice that was decorated with flowers, “Jane very naturally answered that it was ‘the kiss and cry corner.’ ” He wrote KISS AND CRY in all caps on the map, Garbato reported, and the term stuck.
So who was the mystery technician? At the time, CBS was broadcasting the world championships. In the 2011 e-book Skating on Air: The Broadcast History of an Olympic Marquee Sport by Kelli Lawrence, former CBS Sports executive producer Rick Gentile credited the kiss-and-cry coinage to his colleague Peter Donlan. I followed up with Gentile, who produced the 1992, 1994, and 1998 Winter Olympics. He told me that CBS had long wanted to station a camera in the off-ice area where the skaters waited for their marks, but the producers of the world broadcast feed balked, until they finally agreed to do so in the early ’80s.
Donlan was CBS’s London-based operations manager and the point person for dealing with the figure skating championship’s organizers. According to Gentile, Donlan first called it the kiss-and-cry area “and so it ever shall be.” He said it’s possible that Joe Aceti, a CBS Sports director, came up with the phrase, but that “Peter was the one who made it an internationally accepted term.”
After I relayed the story about the Finnish skating official, Gentile told me that Donlan would have been the head guy at the 1983 production meetings, “so I'm saying Peter's still in the running for coining.” (Both Donlan and Aceti have since died.) My guess: The Finnish official said something along the lines of “that’s where the skaters go to kiss and cry” or even, as Garbato wrote, “that’s the kiss-and-cry corner,” and the CBS execs turned it into a production term, as an adjective and adjectival noun, as in “the kiss and cry.”
The emergence of kiss-and-cry areas at competitions—and the emotional gold they yield for television—certainly spurred usage. When the Olympics were first televised in the U.S. in the 1960s, rinks didn’t have a formal place for skaters to receive their scores; they just stood off ice, where a network reporter sometimes would be waiting. According to a 2010 New York Times story by Juliet Macur, the off-ice area was “spruced up with foliage” for the Lake Placid Games in 1980, a bench was added in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, in 1984, and a “major set, with a designed backdrop and lights” was built for Calgary in 1988. “It’s gone from a blue curtain and a bucket of flowers on the side to plastic ice sculptures and crazy sets,” NBC’s director for figure skating, David Michaels, told the Times. “It’s become a big design element that everyone works hard to figure out.”
But it took a few years for “kiss and cry” to travel from the rink and the production truck into the sports vernacular. Wall Street Journal language columnist Ben Zimmer says the first reference to “kiss and cry” in news databases is a May 1987 article by John Powers of the Boston Globe. “Yes,” Powers wrote, “that place where figure skaters clutch their flowers and await their marks has a name—the Kiss and Cry Area.” The Times didn’t use “kiss and cry” until a pre-Olympics, pre-knee-whacking profile of Nancy Kerrigan in January 1994.
The phrase, Zimmer says, is one of several “kiss and blank” descendants of “kiss and tell,” which dates to a 1695 comedy by the English poet and playwright William Congreve. (“O fie, miss, you must not kiss and tell.”) For instance, “kiss and ride” was coined around 1956 by the general manager of the Chicago Transit Authority after he watched wives kiss husbands goodbye at a train drop-off, Zimmer says.**
As for “kiss and cry,” it’s skated well beyond the ice. A 2005 Times profile of a neurologist and ALS researcher afflicted with the illness noted that “so many people got long hours of counseling after learning they had ALS that they call [his office] the kiss-and-cry room.” Kiss and Cry is the title of a 2004 play by Tom Rowan about a pairs skater and an actress who are gay but pretend they’re dating to court celebrity. There’s a 2013 Belgian multimedia performance that has nothing to do with skating. And a 2009 episode of the Canadian television drama The Border in which “Zoe helps a Chinese Olympic athlete defect to Canada.”
The Japanese love kissing and crying. The pop singer Hikaru Utada recorded a 2007 single titled “Kiss & Cry.” There’s a 2000 manga and a 2007 anime by the name, and a new girl group, too. After she won Olympic gold in Vancouver in 2010, figure skater Kim Yuna of South Korea hosted a TV show called Kim Yuna’s Kiss & Cry, which was a Korean Dancing With the Stars on ice. It did not return for a second season.
“Kiss and cry” is an official figure-skating term now, mentioned twice in the International Skating Union’s Constitution and General Regulations. But has its popularity peaked? The number of Olympic “kiss and cry” mentions in the Times grew from the lone citation in 1994 to four in 1998, three in 2002, seven in 2006, and a whopping 13 in 2010. In Sochi, thanks to the new figure-skating team event, the kiss-and-cry area itself turned into a kiss-and-cry condo complex. But Times staffers have managed just five mentions of “kiss and cry” so far. The women’s competition, of course, is still to come.
*Correction, Feb. 18, 2014: This post originally stated that the quadruple Axel, rather than the triple Axel, is firmly entrenched in figure skating.
**Update, Feb. 18, 2014: This sentence originally stated that “kiss and ride” was coined in 1956. It’s unclear whether the phrase was coined then—1956 is the first year the phrase appears in news databases.
Why Are Olympians Putting Puppies Before People in Sochi?
The biggest question in the run-up to the 2014 Winter Olympics had nothing to do with sports. As athletes, coaches, and dignitaries streamed in to Sochi, the world waited to see if anyone would be brave enough to speak out about what’s been happening in Russia. In recent days, we’ve gotten a loud and clear answer. “It makes me sad,” said U.S. freeskier Brita Sigourney. “It’s hard to watch,” lamented American skiing silver medalist Gus Kenworthy. “I’m not trying to make a statement,” said U.S. bobsled and skeleton press officer Amanda Bird, adding that she’s “been amazed how much people have been coming up to me and asking about it.”
This sad, hard-to-watch situation is, of course, the plight of Sochi’s stray dogs. As the New York Times reported on Feb. 5, “hundreds of strays [were] facing a death sentence” as the games approached. Though an International Olympic Committee spokesman claimed that “it would be absolutely wrong to say that any healthy dog will be destroyed,” a Russian animal rights advocate told the Times that “about 300 dogs a month were being killed in Sochi,” some of them reportedly with poisoned darts. And according to the Times, many of these dogs are not feral. Rather, they are abandoned pets.
Upon alighting in Sochi, Sigourney, Kenworthy, Bird, and American snowboarder Lindsey Jacobellis were all inspired to help stave off the canine crisis. Each has declared the intention to adopt a stray, with Kenworthy staying in Russia for a few extra days so he can get the paperwork to adopt multiple puppies.
For what it’s worth, Kenworthy’s pooches look like this:
And here’s a photo of Jacobellis with her cute new dog:
Who could possibly criticize these Olympians for wanting to save adorable dogs from an almost certain death? Not me. Kudos to Kenworthy, Jacobellis, and other animal lovers who have decided to take a pooch home with them, and for taking a public stand. "I need a billionaire who has a plane who's willing to let me take 100 dogs on the flight with me back to the U.S.," Bird, the press officer, told USA Today. And kudos as well to those back in the United States who’ve been moved to inquire about how to adopt a Sochi stray. (The Humane Society does note, though, that there are plenty of homeless pets to adopt in America.)
But all of this commendable sympathy for Sochi’s abandoned dogs points up how much more we’ve heard about animal rights than human rights over the last few weeks. While a few athletes, like Canadian snowboarder Michael Lambert and Austrian ski jumper Daniela Iraschko-Stolz, have made strong statements in Sochi, we haven’t heard much at all from Olympians about non-dog-related issues. It’s not for a lack of problems that need addressing. Human Rights Watch’s page on “Russia’s Olympian Abuses” notes the country’s 2013 passage of anti-gay propaganda laws, as well as a number of other disturbing transgressions: the fact that more than 50 journalists have been murdered in Russia in the last 22 years; that Sochi’s venues were built by more than 70,000 migrant laborers who toiled ceaselessly in violation of Russian law; and that in “one village, Olympic construction destroyed local drinking wells, leaving villagers with no reliable drinking water source for years.” A Russian activist who has worked to track the environmental damage caused by the games was recently sentenced to three years in a labor camp.
Human Rights Watch also reports that approximately 2,000 families were forcibly resettled on account of Olympic construction, with some of them receiving no compensation. These compulsory evictions, the New York Times said in that Feb. 5 article, likely explain why many of the Sochi strays were abandoned: Families have left their pets behind because the Russian government demolished their homes.
Sochi’s animal crisis, then, can best be understood as a proxy for a human one. So why aren’t any athletes—or, really, all that many journalists—talking about that human crisis?
In a Feb. 10 column for the Guardian, Heather Long pondered why the killing of stray dogs seems to have elicited so much more outrage than anything else that’s happening in Russia. Long argued convincingly that “aiding animals like the Sochi dogs is, in many ways, an easier problem to solve than many of the world's largest human tragedies: war, poverty, child abuse, trafficking, disease, etc.” She also cited recent research showing that we have more empathy for battered dogs than adult human beings, and quotes a CNN war correspondent who wrote in 2008, “Of all the stories I have covered during my frequent trips to Iraq, most of the viewer feedback I received asked about the animal victims of war rather than the human ones.”
That was my experience when I covered the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina for Slate in 2005. Less than two weeks after the storm made landfall, I rode in a rescue boat with a search-and-rescue squad from the Army's 82nd Airborne Division. Every house in this neighborhood, Lakeview, had been completely destroyed, the residents driven out by rising floodwater. The ones who were driven out were lucky. Many people didn’t survive Katrina—more than 1,500 lives were lost in Louisiana alone.
And yet, I don’t recall getting a single email from a reader wondering what might happen to the people who’d been displaced. I did, however, receive dozens upon dozens of messages from readers about the “frail-looking cat” that I’d spotted briefly before it skittered away. The emails kept coming and coming and coming: Why hadn’t the Army saved the cat? What were the cat’s GPS coordinates? How could I say that there were “no signs of life” when so many animals needed rescuing? (I meant “signs of human life,” but many did not forgive me for failing to make that distinction clear.)
In New Orleans, like in Sochi, the suffering of these animals was a consequence of human suffering. How could it possibly be that the human half of that equation doesn’t tug at us as strongly? In her Guardian column, Long writes “that many people view animals as innocent and helpless, similar to children. How we treat the weakest in our society is a reflection of who we are.” That is certainly true. But it’s also a reflection of who we are that we find it so much easier to love an abandoned puppy than to sympathize with an exploited laborer, or a Russian man who’s persecuted on account of his sexual preference, or a family that’s been kicked out of its home to build and Olympic venue.
It’s easy, relatively, to save a Russian dog. It’s much harder to help workers, to speak out against intolerance, or to challenge a government. I commend everyone who’s stepped forward to help Sochi’s animals, and I don’t begrudge any Olympic athlete for making the choice to keep her head down, compete in the event she’s trained for all her life, and stay quiet about issues of human rights. But it would be heartening if, before the games are over, a whole bunch of athletes make a very difficult decision, choosing to speak out about what’s being done to Russian men and women, and not just man’s best friend.
The Little-Remembered U.S. Virgin Islands Bobsled Team Was Way Worse than the Jamaicans
The story of the 1988 Jamaican bobsled team, dramatized in the mediocre 1993 Disney family comedy Cool Runnings, is a familiar one. But few people know that the Jamaicans weren’t the only unlikely bobsled team at the 1988 Calgary Games. A half-dozen warm-weather nations fielded bobsled teams that year. The unlikeliest of these may have been the team from the U.S. Virgin Islands, a bunch of wealthy middle-aged businessmen who hatched the idea at a cocktail party. Their story might be even better than the Jamaicans’.
The 1988 Calgary Games were the last gasp of enthusiastic amateur athleticism at the modern Olympics. Nearsighted British ski jumper “Eddie the Eagle” Edwards became famous for his inept performance on the ramp; by the opening ceremony, the Globe and Mail reported, he had already “broken a ski binding, got lost in the athletes' village, been locked out of a change room and missed two of his training jumps.” Elliot Archilla, a Puerto Rican biathlete, was chastised for “selling sweatshirts an hour after crossing the finish line.” His teammate, George Tucker, a 250-pound luger who was “considered a pest at the Lake Placid luge track,” drew notice after exchanging sharp words with a track worker who called him a “fat pig.”
Yes, 1988 was a great year for Olympic tourism, and this was especially true in the bobsled. Willie Gault, a wide receiver for the Chicago Bears, served as an alternate for the U.S. team. Prince Albert of Monaco—known as “Big Al” in the Olympic Village—manned a sled for his nation. In addition to Jamaica and the U.S. Virgin Islands, Portugal, New Zealand, the Netherlands Antilles, and Mexico all fielded bobsled teams. The Mexican team comprised four brothers who worked together as waiters at a Dallas restaurant called La Cantina Laredo. “Are the other waiters rooting for you?” Detroit Free Press columnist Mitch Albom asked one of the brothers at the time. “Yes,” he said. “They’re making a lot better tips without the four of us around.”
The U.S. Virgin Islanders were perhaps the unlikeliest bobsledders of the bunch. Their Olympic journey began at a cocktail party—“Cocktail parties are the hub of existence in St. Thomas,” one of the competitors’ wives informed the Washington Post’s Henry Allen—when John Foster, a businessman who had represented the U.S. Virgin Islands three times in sailing at the Summer Olympics, asked a hotelier named Christopher Sharpless if he had ever tried bobsledding. He hadn’t, but he was up for the challenge, and the two men booked a trip to Lake Placid, where they signed up for an “Introduction to Bobsledding” class. After returning to the islands, they recruited some friends, purchased some sleds, and assembled a team.
“We got lots of negative reaction from the [U.S. Virgin Islands’] summer Olympic team at first,” team member Harvey Hook told the St. Petersburg Times in 1994. “They were afraid we would disgrace the island by making fools of ourselves.” You couldn’t blame the Summer Olympians for thinking that. Hook, a Maryland native, was 52 years old at the start of the 1988 Olympics. John Reeve and John Foster, who served as driver and brakeman for one of the team’s two sleds, were 50 and 49 respectively. Sharpless, who rode on Hook’s sled, was a mere 42.
The bobsledders arrived in Calgary toting two $10,000 Italian bobsleds that had been painted black with palm trees, and wearing parkas they’d purchased at Sears. Their first turn on the Olympic course came as a bit of a shock. “We have a sled with wheels; we push it on the road next to the beach to practice starts—it looks sort of like a bed, actually,” Harvey Hook told the Washington Post after one of the team’s training runs. “I’m too old to be doing this.” Realizing they had little chance at a medal, the Virgin Islanders instead came up with something called the Caribbean Cup, a silver trophy that would go to the warm-weather nation whose squad posted the best times. (Bulgaria, which can get very cold indeed, also competed for the Cup, because “they were so keen on the idea, we decided to let them in anyhow,” said John Reeve.)
Were they any good? Stephen Brunt of the Globe and Mail likened the novice bobsledders’ performance to “a bus banging down a bowling alley,” and while the comparison may have been cruel, it wasn’t inaccurate. The 50-year-olds were lousy bobsledders, slow out of the gate and unused to the rigors of international competition. The U.S. Virgin Islands’ No. 1 sled, driven by Reeve and Foster, finished in last place in the two-man race, 38th out of 38 teams. The other sled did slightly better, finishing 35th, fourth from the bottom, ahead of both Mexican squads. The Jamaican team immortalized in Cool Runnings came in 30th, 7.15 seconds ahead of the slowest Virgin Islands sled. If the Jamaicans had themselves gone 7.15 seconds faster, they would have finished in eighth place, ahead of a sled from the Soviet Union. This gives you a sense of how bumbling the Virgin Islanders were: They made the Jamaicans look like an Eastern Bloc superpower.
Prince Albert of Monaco, by the way, came in a respectable 25th, though he later told the press that “I would have liked to have won the Caribbean Cup.” (The Cup went to New Zealand, which tied for 20th place.) All of these underdogs were a gift for the Olympic media, but a bit of an annoyance for the serious bobsled contenders, many of whom worried that the newbies’ sloppy work was damaging the track and affecting the good racers’ speed. Chief among the Virgin Islanders’ antagonists was East German bobsledder Wolfgang Hoppe. “When you get as many inexperienced drivers in a race as we have here, it hurts the experienced drivers,” Hoppe told the media. “Ideally, there should only be a maximum of 25 to 30 sleds in a competition of this magnitude.”
And yet while the 1988 sideshow may have been bad for serious bobsledders, it was undoubtedly a good thing for the sport of bobsledding, which benefitted from the publicity surrounding all the new teams. According to Harvey Hook, the International Federation of Bobsled Teams told the Virgin Islands squad that “the Virgin Islands and Jamaica put the sport on the map.”
But while everybody remembers the Jamaicans, the Virgin Islanders’ exploits have mostly been forgotten. The Virgin Islands bobsled team continued to compete, quite ineptly, through the 2002 Winter Games. It is now defunct, leaving little trace of its existence aside from a small trove of memorabilia on eBay: an official Virgin Islands bobsled team T-shirt on eBay, as well as a couple of Olympic bobsled pins. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some bidding to do.
What NBC Missed about Bode Miller by Focusing on His Dead Brother
America’s best-known cold-weather athletes haven’t had much luck in these Winter Olympics. Shaun White and Shani Davis have both failed to medal. Ted Ligety has run far behind the leaders in every race he’s skied. Lindsey Vonn, rehabbing a knee injury, didn’t even make it to Sochi. If you watch the Olympics to see American superstars succeed, then you probably haven’t enjoyed the Sochi Games very much, because most of the athletes you’ve heard of have let you down.
The lack of American stars at Sochi has been a boon to NBC’s coverage in one regard: The network has been forced to focus on non-American athletes, and its nightly telecasts have been better for it. But NBC’s desperation for an American Olympic hero completely derailed its primetime telecast on Sunday night, which focused on tearjerking around 36-year-old Bode Miller. The network miked up Miller’s wife, Morgan, and cut to her in the crowd over and over again. Before Miller’s bronze-medal-winning super-G run, NBC aired a segment focusing on the recent death of his brother, Chelone, an Olympic-caliber snowboarder who had a fatal seizure in October. And in a controversial post-race interview, reporter Christin Cooper kept on pushing and pushing and pushing Miller to talk about his dead brother.
Lost in all this was Miller’s excellent super-G run, not to mention the run of his teammate Andrew Weibrecht, who won silver and then stood there awkwardly while NBC’s Cooper zeroed in on Miller’s family tragedy. Weibrecht’s amazing performance notwithstanding, it would’ve been totally reasonable to lavish attention on Miller's prowess on the snow—after all, he’s now the oldest medalist ever in an Olympic Alpine skiing event. On an exceedingly difficult course that many skiers didn’t even finish, Miller rushed down the mountain, intent on forging the most direct path between the top and the bottom. This near-reckless intensity is what has made Miller the most-successful male Alpine skier in American history. And it’s why the simplistic narrative surrounding his Sochi sojourn is so supremely stupid.
Every Olympic cycle, the mainstream press discovers Miller anew and finds a novel way to present him to the world. Early in his career, everyone focused on how he was home-schooled by hippie parents and grew up using an outhouse. Then, in 2006, it was Miller as partier and drinker, the ostensible bad boy of the Alpine ski world. That year, he was an ingrate, an athlete who would be “unceremoniously forgotten,” in the words of NBC’s Bob Costas. Now, somehow, the Peacock seems to know Miller’s name very well. This Olympics, the hook is Bode in his dotage, older and wiser, with his wife and kids and personal tragedies to drive him to one last big score.
Each one of these claims about who Miller is and what he stands for is overly simplistic. On his travels through the Olympics mythmaking machine, Miller—one of the most complex sportsmen in recent American history—has either been presented as nothing but rough edges or had those edges sanded off. It was telling that in Sunday’s pre-race feature on Miller, NBC failed to note that the ski racer has been locked in a bitter, bizarre custody battle involving his then-unborn child. (Emily Bazelon has more on the disturbing precedent that case set.) But that’s not worth mentioning in 2014, which in NBC’s view is the Year of Bode’s New Wife and Bode’s Dead Brother. No other stories mattered.
What’s most frustrating about NBC’s efforts to focus on Miller as the main character in an ever-shifting morality play is that he’s such a fascinating figure as an athlete. In a 2009 piece for Outside, Bill Gifford accurately noted that Miller was interesting and different not because of his hippie upbringing, or his childhood bathroom habits, “but his organic, almost artistic approach to skiing. His uncanny feel for the snow and his preternatural sense of balance allow him to be creative on the course, skiing lines that most other racers would never dare.”
The point of any Alpine skiing race is to finish the course as quickly as possible. Most skiers, however, do not go at full speed on every part of the run. They’ll slow down for particularly treacherous sections, sacrificing speed for control, trying to limit the possibility of a crash. But Miller refuses to compromise his speed, even when he probably ought to do so. He is known for going fast from start to finish, taking the most direct possible line down the slope, thus increasing the chance of victory while simultaneously increasing the chance of disaster.
Like Shaun White and Shani Davis, two other standout American athletes who’ve had their share of controversy, Miller has had a rocky relationship with the leading figures in his sport. He famously split from the U.S. Ski Team in 2007 amid concerns over his behavior and dedication. While he’s back with the team nowadays, he’s still an independent spirit. In 2006, writing for Rolling Stone, Vanessa Grigoriadis aptly described Miller as “a one-man revolution against the conventions of skiing and the world order,” someone whose unorthodox training regimen and skiing style set him apart from the Alpine establishment. Miller isn't technically perfect. There's nothing classically beautiful about his skiing. But there is beauty in the way he goes all-out every single time. His skiing is slightly insane, and that's why he wins so much, because he'll do things that other skiers won't.
In 2006, Miller discussed his style with Rolling Stone’s Grigoriadis: “I've been crashing forever, and coaches are like, ‘What are you doing? If you just backed off for a bit you'd be fine.’ I'm like, ‘What, you think I didn't know that?’ But am I going to back off? No. Because I like to do it this way, and I don't give a fuck if I crash.” His brother, Chelone Miller, apparently felt the same way; his seizures began after he crashed a motorcycle in 2006 while he wasn’t wearing a helmet. Grigoriadis asked Miller about his brother’s accident, and his answer was revealing:
But is the whole goal of life preserving your life as long as you can? No. The goal is to enjoy your life, to challenge yourself, to sometimes make stupid decisions, which are sometimes fun and sometimes idiotic and sometimes just a big, fat mistake that you regret. But the reason for it all is enjoyment; that's the reason for life. It is not that I don't recognize the danger in ski racing but that I don't fear the consequences. I mean, what's the worst that can happen? You die, I guess. You're all alone and you don't know anything. You're all done.
That’s a complicated, unsentimental answer. And, to me, it explains why NBC’s coverage of Miller was so wrongheaded and offensive. The network is incredibly well-positioned to explain to us why Miller is so great at what he does, and even how personal tragedy might inform his approach on the slopes. What NBC shouldn’t do is reduce him to a guy with a simplistic, maudlin backstory. You don’t need to exploit Bode Miller to show your audience that he’s a fascinating character. Just focus in on him as he races down the mountain, and tell us why he so often comes in first.
The Olympic Hockey Group Stage Was Amazing, Full of Drama, and Totally Meaningless
Canada's Drew Doughty brought an overdue end to the group stage of the men's hockey tournament late on Sunday night in Sochi when he snuck an overtime game-winner past Finland's Tuukka Rask. It was a thrilling end to a high-profile matchup between the defending gold-medal winners and the most-decorated team in the Olympics' NHL era. It was also, like the rest of the preliminary rounds, essentially meaningless.
With 18 games now in the books, all 12 teams—yes, every single squad that made the trip to Sochi this month—remain alive. That was by design, not chance. The win-or-stick-around-anyway format that was put in place before the Vancouver Games ensures no team is sent packing before its fourth game. That means Sweden, the only squad to win all three of its games in regulation this year, plays on in Sochi. And so too does Norway, which went winless while posting the worst goal differential in the opening week. Same for everyone else wearing an official Sochi patch on their hockey sweater.
This is an observation, not a complaint. The early games may have been little more than an exhibition, but they were still must-watch TV for any hockey fan. And the Cold War-worthy USA-Russia showdown was the type of instant classic even casual fans dream about. If the NHL stars weren't invested in each game’s outcome, it certainly didn't show. There was 43-year-old Teemu Selanne briefly returning to his NHL ‘94 form to add a few more points to his all-time Olympic scoring record. There was Swiss goaltender Jonas Hiller posting two full hours of shutout hockey to carry his scoring-phobic team to two wins. And I'd gladly continue to set my alarm clock for another week of stick-and-puck pageantry in exchange for even the slightest chance of witnessing T.J. Oshie, the most American of American hockey heroes, take part in another shootout.
It's just that as much as NBC wanted you to believe otherwise, Olympic history tells us that the only things the preliminary rounds actually determined—the 1-through-12 seeding and the four first-round byes—haven't been worth anywhere near their weight in gold in the NHL era that began in Nagano.
This is a small sample size to be sure, but consider: Since the NHL began sending its players to the Olympics in 1998, no top seed has ever gone on to claim gold. In fact, three of the four NHL-era Olympic champions entered the elimination rounds as a relatively lowly six seed, while the fourth gold medalist was seeded third. Given that, it's hard to see what all the seeding fuss has been about these past few days.
For what it's worth, Sweden is the No. 1 seed, while the USA, Canada, and Finland are 2, 3, and 4 respectively. More important than those numbers is the fact that those four squads earned free passes to the quarterfinals. Well, at least you'd think those byes are important. Sure, any team would prefer to play one less elimination game, but the only legitimate gold-medal favorite stuck in the qualification round is Russia (the No. 5 seed), and they’ll be able to use their game against winless Norway as a televised practice.
And let's not forget that it was only four years ago—when byes were handed out for the first time—that the world watched as Canada stumbled into the qualification round only to win four straight elimination games and the gold medal on their home ice. The Vancouver silver medalists, meanwhile, were an American squad that had run the table in the prelims, including a victory over their hosts, as they did this time in Sochi.
Yes, some of the favorites find themselves with more appealing draws than their top-flight rivals, but that is due largely to chance, not seed. Even this year's no. 1, Sweden, will likely have a very tough draw, needing to knock off the winner of an almost-certain Russia-Finland quarterfinal followed by whoever wins a likely North American grudge match in the other semifinal. Or take the Americans, who played inspired hockey to earn the No. 2 seed, only to face the possibility of having to go through two Olympic champions in the Czechs and the Canadians just to reach the finals in the Bolshoy Ice Dome. What's more, neither of the top two seeds' situations are even unusual. No squad has ever gone on to win a medal of any color in the NHL era without first dispatching at least two star-studded rivals along the way.
All that is to say the state of play in Sochi remains the same now as it was before the past five days' worth of games, as entertaining as they've been. There were only six legitimate medal hopefuls entering the tournament. There are still only six, the same six, entering the elimination rounds: the USA, Canada, Russia, Finland, Sweden, and the Czech Republic. That was aways going to be the case—or, more specifically, it's always been the case. Those six teams have taken every single Olympic gold, silver, and bronze medal handed out since Nagano, and none have ever failed to make it to the quarterfinals, regardless of their seed. So with apologies to the stingy Swiss (no. 6) and scrappy Slovaks (no. 10), there's little reason to expect a different outcome this time around.
Which brings us back to this week, when the real action begins and the games actually matter for the first time since Vancouver. I can't wait.
Cool Runnings Was Not Good, and It Is Definitely Not a “Cult Classic”
The Jamaican two-man bobsled team is getting a hell of a lot of attention for a team that finished dead last in today’s heats in Sochi. Ovations from the crowd at the opening ceremonies, heartwarming feature stories on NBC, excited reactions from almost every athlete they meet in the Olympic Village: Marvin Dixon and Winston Watts are getting the movie-star treatment. This has nothing to do with the Jamaicans’ athletic prowess, or even their underdog status at the Olympic Games, and everything to do with the movie that was made about their Olympic forefathers: Cool Runnings.
Cool Runnings was a 1993 Disney film about the real-life Jamaican bobsled team that competed at the Calgary Games in 1988. Directed by Jon Turteltaub, who was hot off the success of 1992’s 3 Ninjas, the movie stars Leon, Malik Yoba, Rawle D. Lewis, and Doug E. Doug as the Jamaican bobsledders; John Candy plays the team’s unlikely coach. It’s a family movie that’s straight from the Save The Cat! template, a formulaic sports comedy that knows when to tug at the heartstrings, when to go for laughs, and when to tap into the anti-Swiss sentiment that lies deep within all of our hearts. I liked it a lot when I was 12. I also liked it because I was 12, and not yet old enough to realize how hacky Cool Runnings was.
Yes, Cool Runnings was a movie for kids, but even by kid-movie standards it is very, very hacky. There’s lots of mugging, plenty of pratfalls. One of the bobsledders is named “Yul Brenner,” and, surprise, he’s bald! Another is named “Sanka Coffie,” for no discernable reason whatsoever. Both of these monikers just go to prove Roger Ebert’s First Law of Funny Names, which says that “Funny names, in general, are a sign of desperation at the screenplay level.” As Desson Howe wrote for the Washington Post upon the film’s release, the movie “consists of two running gags: How funny it is for Jamaicans to be in a bobsled team. [And] how funny blacks are when they endure cold.” Howe dismssed Cool Runnings as one of those patronizing, blandly offensive films “in which cartoonish natives scratch their heads and try to make sense of the white world.” He’s not wrong.
Over the last week or so, my colleague Dan Engber has been on the rampage against “Cool Runnings revisionism”—the sentiment being expressed by some in the media that the movie was good, or a “cult classic.” Cool Runnings is second on Box Office Mojo’s list of top-grossing Olympic movies behind Blades of Glory, so it’s got that going for it. But Matthew Power, in conversation with Engber, has it right when he says that Cool Runnings is less a cult classic than a “pop culture punchline”—a movie that’s continually referenced not because it’s good but because it is a strange cultural artifact that a lot of 30-somethings remember. To wit, Entertainment Weekly recently published an oral history of the making of Cool Runnings, which, I believe, now leaves Air Bud: Golden Receiver as the only middlebrow 1990s sports movie that hasn’t been oral-historied.
A lot of athletes in Sochi do seem to genuinely love Cool Runnings. On his Instagram and Facebook accounts, American slopestyle skier Nick Goepper posted a photo he took with one of the Jamaicans, along with a couple of lines of dialogue from the movie. Swedish skier Henrik Harlaut carried a raw egg with him during his slopestyle runs, in honor of a character from Cool Runnings who did the same thing on the bobsled course.* (The egg broke when Harlaut fell down. Harlaut also almost lost his pants when he fell, a gag that wasn’t in Cool Runnings, but could have been.) The Indian luger Shiva Keshavan—who has received almost no attention at Sochi, even though his story is just as cinematic as the Jamaicans'—says he was first inspired to try luge after watching Cool Runnings as a teenager.
I understand why Olympians like the movie. There haven’t been very many movies made about the Winter Olympics, after all, and Cool Runnings is probably better than Blades of Glory. But that doesn’t explain the media’s continued fascination with it, or its insistence that the film is some modern classic that’s justifiably loved by all.
The story of the 1988 Jamaican bobsled team is a great story. The story of the 2014 Jamaican bobsled team is a great story. Cool Runnings is a cartoonish sports comedy meant for children, and I can’t be the only person who is getting pretty sick of hearing about it. If journalists really need some cinematic reference point as a hook for their articles about Jamaican bobsledders, they’d be better off pointing to this brief documentary about the 1988 squad from the website Sports on Earth. The documentary is way more accurate than and just as compelling as Cool Runnings. Plus, it features a clip from a Jamaican bobsledder's Miller Lite commercial, an ad that may be even dumber than Cool Runnings. Now that's an amazing accomplishment!
*Correction, Feb. 17, 2014: This post originally stated that skier Henrik Harlaut was Swiss. He is Swedish.
Ten Places that Are Colder than Sochi Right Now
According to the good folks at Weather Underground, it is currently 46.4 degrees Fahrenheit in Sochi, Russia. The consistently high temperatures have wreaked havoc on the various ski and snowboard courses, and prompted millions of people to wonder why, exactly, the Winter Olympics are being held in a place where it isn’t very wintry. If the International Olympic Committee wanted to ensure cold weather for the Olympics, they had plenty of other sites to choose from. Here are 10 places worldwide where, as of this writing, it is currently colder than Sochi. All temperatures are in Fahrenheit.
1. Washington, D.C. (37.6 degrees)
2. Pretty much everywhere else in Russia. (It is -18.3 degrees in Yakutsk at the moment.)
3. Pigeon Forge, Tenn., home of Dollywood. (44.1 degrees)
4. Beijing, China, site of the 2008 Summer Olympics. (32 degrees)
5. The Norwegian pavilion at Epcot Center in Orlando, probably. (They really crank the A/C in there.)
6. Dublin, Ireland. (45.5 degrees)
7. Lawrenceburg, Ind., the Indiana town where slopestyle skiing bronze medalist Nick Goepper grew up. (31.8 degrees)*
8. Pyongyang, North Korea. (31 degrees)
9. That indoor ski slope in a mall in Dubai. (It has an “amazing mountain-themed wintry setting”—just like Sochi!)
10. Chamonix, St. Moritz, Lake Placid, Garmish-Partenkirchen, Oslo, Cortina d’Ampezzo, Innsbruck, Grenoble, Sapporo, Calgary, Albertville, Lillehammer, Nagano, Torino, and Vancouver. Come on, IOC: Stick with what works.
*Correction, Feb. 16, 2014: This post originally stated that Nick Goepper won a bronze medal in snowboarding. His medal came in slopestyle skiing.
They're Both Sliding on Ice. So Why Is Luge Faster than Skeleton?
So skeleton racing concluded today at the Sochi Games, and as the medalists ascended the podium, viewers around the world finally exhaled and expressed their thanks that nobody died. From the casual sports fan’s vantage point, skeleton looks like the fastest, scariest, most dangerous sport in the world. Riders plunge head-first down an ice chute atop a tiny sled at speeds upwards of 75 mph. Then, if they don’t crash, they do it again.
But at least compared with all the other petrifying Olympic sliding sports, skeleton isn’t as fast as you’d think. Matthew Antoine of the United States won bronze in men’s skeleton today with a maximum speed of 129.2 km/hr, or 80.3 mph. The top American luger, Christopher Mazdzer, had a top speed of 137.3 km/hr, or 85.3 mh. That was only good enough to earn Mazdzer a 13th place finish. The top speed recorded in women’s skeleton this year was 126.9 km/hr, or 78.9 mph. The top speed in women’s luge was 136.0 km/hr, or 84.5 mph. Clearly, the Olympic lugers ought to be the ones with the skulls on their helmets, while the skeleton racers should shift to something more appropriate, maybe some sort of dyspeptic turtle.
Why is luge faster than skeleton? Two main reasons. First, it has to do with the materials of the respective runners, or the metallic bars attached to the underside of the sled. Skeleton racers ride downhill atop a set of tubular steel runners, which sort of look like they were yanked off of a stainless steel towel rack. The dullness of these runners helps to limit a skeleton racer’s speed. A luge sled, by contrast, rests atop a pair of razor-sharp steel blades that cut into the ice like a pair of skates. The sharp edges of the luge runners help make the luge sleds faster than their skeleton counterparts.
Another reason why luge is faster than skeleton? Luge racers assume a much more aerodynamic position than skeleton racers. In skeleton, you lie face-first on the sled and lead with your helmet. In case you haven’t seen one lately, helmets tend to be big and round. All of that surface area creates more drag, slowing the skeleton sled down. But luge racers lie on their backs and lead with their feet. Less surface area, less drag, faster sled. It’s basic science, people!
So, yes, luge is faster. But to be clear, skeleton is very fast. So is the bobsled. And world-class sliding athletes take every opportunity possible to soup up their rides and make them go even faster. The U.S. luge team, for example, has partnered with Dow Chemicals to engineer strong, speedy steel-composite runners made from top-secret materials in the hope of shaving seconds off the luge team’s times. Other sliders employ extra-legal modifications in order to increase their speeds; skeleton riders are routinely accused of “greasing the runners” by coating them with friction-reducing goo, while bobsledders have been known to heat their runners to reduce friction on the ice. “It's part of our sport. If you ain't cheating, you ain't racing,” a Canadian bobsledder recently told USA Today. And I get it, if you want to win the race, you need to go faster than everyone else. But these sleds are plenty fast already. Whatever happened to slowing down and enjoying the ride?