Edward Goldstein, a former member of the U.S. Olympic Committee’s Education Committee, is a contributor to the “Encyclopedia of the Modern Olympic Movement.”
For 17 days starting Friday, the world’s eyes will be on the Black Sea resort town of Sochi, Russia, host of the 22nd Winter Olympics. U.S. interest in the Winter Games has blossomed, largely because of the spectacular scenery and the American success in many of the sports added to the winter program. Before the Games begin, let’s examine myths worth piercing with a biathlete’s rifle.
1. World politics has intruded on the Summer Olympics but not on the tranquil Winter Games.
Terrorist attacks haven’t struck the Winter Olympics, unlike the Summer Games in Munich in 1972 and in Atlanta in 1996. Nor have there been major boycotts such as those of the Summer Olympics due to disputes over South African apartheid (Montreal 1976) and the Soviet Union’s invasions of Hungary (Melbourne 1956) and Afghanistan (Moscow 1980). But the Winter Games have seen their share of political strife.
Japan’s invasion of China caused the withdrawal of Sapporo as the host city for 1940, and the site of the 1936 Winter Games, Garmisch-Partenkirchen, was dropped as a replacement after Germany invaded Poland. The Summer and Winter Games that year were canceled. Four years later, the ongoing war led to the cancellation of the Winter Games planned for Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy. The 1944 Summer Olympics were also scrapped.
And although the 1984 Games in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, were not marred by conflict, the Balkan Wars of the 1990s turned Olympic sites such as the ski jump into killing zones. This didn’t bolster the later campaign of International Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch for the Olympics to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.
2. Today’s female figure skaters can skate rings around the ice queens of yesteryear.
Without a doubt, reigning Olympic gold medalist Kim Yu-na of South Korea spins and flies like a whirling dervish. Her athleticism, and that of her competitors, is light years ahead of where figure skating was decades ago. But when it comes to skating rings — actual figure eights — no modern skater comes close to Peggy Fleming, the 1968 gold medalist in Grenoble, France. At that time, compulsory figures — the ability to trace three figure eights, with points deducted for deviation from the Euclidian ideal — counted for 60 percent of a female figure skater’s score. Newsweek wrote that one of Fleming’s strengths was “her keen geometric sense.” Today, compulsories are no longer part of the Olympic skating program.
While Americans take pride in the leaping abilities of our recent Olympic champions — Kristi Yamaguchi in 1992, Tara Lipinski in 1998, Sarah Hughes in 2002 — these skaters are also carrying forward the graceful, artistic legacies of such “old school” gold medalists as Fleming, Tenley Albright (1956), Carol Heiss (1960) and Dorothy Hamill (1976).
3. There’s been only one Miracle on Ice.
Picture this: A bunch of American college kids had an improbable run in the early rounds of the Olympic hockey tournament and moved on to face the heavily favorited Soviet Union in the semifinals. The Soviet skaters were essentially full-time professionals who had defeated the U.S. team in four previous world championships and in the prior Olympics. With the game televised live, Americans cheered when a plucky U.S. winger broke a tense tie late in the third period, for a 3-2 win, and followed up with a third-period rally in the gold-medal match to claim the winner’s podium. So went the miracle of the 1960 Squaw Valley Olympics.
That’s right — the first Miracle on Ice was in 1960, not 1980. The 1960 U.S. team was even more of an underdog than Herb Brooks’s 1980 squad. Its big challenge was getting past the Canadians, who had dominated the Americans for decades. And that it did, in a shocking 2-1 upset, before taking on the U.S.S.R. The 1980 team didn’t have to face the Canadians on its road to victory.
4. Canada-U.S. men’s hockey is the best Winter Games rivalry.
The rivalry has certainly heated up since the 1998 introduction of NHL players into the tournament. But there’s a much fiercer rivalry between the same countries in the Games. Since women’s ice hockey was added to the Olympics in 1998, the Americans and the Canadians have dropped the puck in three gold-medal matches, with the United States upsetting the favored Canadians in Nagano in 1998 and settling for silver in Salt Lake City (2002) and in Vancouver (2010).
In preparation for Sochi, the two teams have faced each other in several practice matches. And more important for YouTube viewers, there have been two major brawls instigated by American forwards Jocelyne Lamoureux and her sister, Monique Lamoureux. As Jamie Hagerman Phinney, a 2006 U.S. Olympian, puts it: “I’m a Red Sox fan, so I hate losing to the Yankees, but not nearly as much as losing to Canada.”
Another compelling rivalry is between Norway and Italy in the men’s cross-country ski relay. Over three consecutive Olympics, from 1994 to 2002, the total difference in time between the two teams was less than a second, an astounding figure for a race that lasts more than 90 minutes.
5. Big cities jump at the chance to host the Olympics.
Not always. As a young Denverite, I was thrilled when the IOC announced in 1970 that my home town would host the 1976 Winter Games. But as the Denver organizing committee started projecting skyrocketing costs for an event that had yet to attract major corporate sponsorship or benefit from massive television revenue, local opposition to hosting a primarily taxpayer-funded Games began to swell.
Two years later, state Rep. Richard Lamm spearheaded a ballot initiative that rejected a $5 million bond issue to finance the Games. A week after the vote, Denver withdrew as host city, and the IOC moved the Games to Innsbruck, Austria.
Lamm and his allies argued that the Games would encourage people watching on TV to move en masse to Colorado and thus spoil our Rocky Mountain environment. Lamm, who became a three-term governor and an unsuccessful candidate against Ross Perot for the 1996 Reform Party presidential nomination, later recognized that the anti-Olympics vote did nothing to stop Colorado’s growth. “The Colorado I was afraid was going to happen with the Olympics happened without the Olympics,” he told the Rocky Mountain News in 1999.
There’s been speculation in Olympic circles that our country is next in line to host a Summer Olympics, perhaps as early as 2024. But if that effort fails, we could make a big push to host the 2026 Winter Games, with Salt Lake City, Reno-Lake Tahoe, Boston and, yes, Denver considered the top candidates.