Americans love a saga. Lots of personal details about the main characters. Loads of familiarity with all possible twists of plot. Plus plenty of ways to take a moral stance toward the action. Give us an eight-part series any day, or a favorite TV soap that runs for years.
That's why the Winter Olympics -- an interlude of lyric poetry in our sports schedule -- is an acquired taste rather than a greedily awaited blockbuster on our calendar. As opening ceremomies approach, it's time to forsake saga for a while and focus on the cut-to-the-quick couplet.
Yes, it's time to get our minds right. Or we'll miss the fun in Calgary. The Winter Games come to us on their own wide-ranging, often inhospitable terms -- frigid, exotic, dignified, terrifying, spectacular -- with several events as dangerous as auto racing and others as delicate as ballet. From bobsled death to ice dance, these Games give us the sort of alien athletic experiences that fall outside our normal ultraviolent and infrared range of tastes -- all of them framed in scenery out of an Ansel Adams photo.
Meet Nick Thometz, the speed skater, and Matt Roy, the madman of the bobsled. Brian Boitano, pursuing the first quadruple jump in men's figure skating, and his female counterpart Debi Thomas, full of brains, joie de vivre and injuries, are almost ready to take the ice, too. Bonnie Blair, yes, we'll definitely get to know her. But will Josh Thompson make us learn the nuances of the bizarre and brutal biathlon?
How strange that American TV audiences take so warmly to a thing so strange as the Winter Games. A Super Bowl or World Series, now that's perfect saga stuff. By kickoff, we know every detail of Doug Williams' existence. Or, by the first pitch, we've learned Frank Viola's brother's fiance's first name. Every possible scenario -- except, of course, the one that actually comes to pass -- has been imagined or predicted by pundits for weeks. We know how we feel about the game. We're ready to take a side, argue, defend out favorites. Instead of "How the West Was Won," it's "How the Championship Was Won."
Compared to Super Bowl XXII, the Winter Olympics is almost everything we don't normally fancy in our sports. The history of downhill skiing is a saga to an Austrian, no doubt, but not to a Virginian. Where else is America a third-rate power, rejoicing over crumbs from the table while nations like Norway listen to their anthems daily? Where else do we watch athletes of whom we have barely heard competing in events which we, in some cases, cannot even pronounce?
Yet, once every four years, the Winter Olympics seem like a perfect way to endure February. In fact, the Games often achieve a simplicity and beauty that we miss in our regular fare.
We watch many of our modern American games with an ambiguity born of our profound familiarity. We can seldom detatch the present athletic moment from the past and future of the individual. When we see Timmy Smith gain 204 yards in the Super Bowl, part of us wants to protect him from the future. We have seen too many Mark Fidrychs and Dwight Goodens to think that such fame is an unmixed blessing. Williams has barely had time to walk off the field, holding his helmet over his head like a Roman warrior, before we wonder, "Will he be able to hold his job next year?"
Our sports stories have become such continuums that we never seem to have a clean introduction, then a clean break. Do we always want to see the whole tangled, turbulent life? Occasionally, it is almost a relief to let a hero or heroine recede into the shadows, glow intact.
Back in 1976, we only needed to know Austria's Franz Klammer for two minutes in our lives, as he hurtled downhill, far beyond words like reckless, with his nation on his back. Couldn't he have been kin to the Irish Airman of whom Yeats wrote, "A lonely impulse of delight/ Drove to this tumult in the clouds;/ I balanced all, brought all to mind,/ The years to come seemed waste of breath,/ A waste of breath the years behind/ In balance with this life, this death."
Isn't it all to the good that we have such a murky sense of where Eric Heiden has been since he won five gold medals in 1980 in Lake Placid? He is studying to be some sort of doctor, which is all very nice. However, many of us prefer to remember him, once and for all, roaring out of the last turn at the speed rink in Lake Placid, streaking alongside Russia's legendary sprinter Evgenjy Kulikov, skate to skate, then going on alone, headed toward his place in history. "I felt," said Heiden, "like I was being fired out of a slingshot." So did we all.
The Minnesota Twins and the Washington Redskins have to come back and play next season. The '80 U.S. Olympic hockey team will forever be dancing on its skate-tipped toes in our memories.
Events at the Winter Games are timeless bubbles caught in the flow of athletic history, like those snow-filled paperweights in which a pristine scene is frozen. We only see the competitors in their moment of brilliant youth and maximum accomplishment. Even in failure, they have a certain grand piquancy that penetrates like poetry. Other athletes can fall back on try, try, again, but most Olympians -- amateurs on a four-year cycle -- only get to try once.
We'll be back to prose and sagas soon -- the next installment of Larry Bird, the St. Louis Cardinals or the Washington Capitals. But first, we have 16 days of lyric poetry, in all its range of voices.
Where else do you compete to symphony or fly a hundred yards through the air off the side of a mountain? Where else do you risk your life so brazenly for no prize money whatsoever? Where else do tiny countries and unknown athletes capture the world for an hour?
"All that's beautiful drifts away like the waters," said the poet. But, for the next 16 days, it will drift slowly. "Time to put off the world and go somewhere."
Somewhere like Calgary.