Deep into this winter, you’d think most Americans had seen enough of ice and snow. But a harsh winter won’t stop millions from tuning in this week to watch participants in the XXII Olympic Winter Games skate and slide in Sochi, Russia. This in one part of winter that people every four years feel warmly about.
Part of the appeal is the drama. The U.S. Olympic victory over Russia in men’s ice hockey still stirs American hearts 34 years later. But much of the attraction is the quirkiness of sports conceived in snowbound lands. Consider the mystery of curling, a kind of shuffleboard on ice. Or the biathlon in which competitors ski and then stop and shoot rifles. Or the blurring craziness of the luge or the even scarier version known as the skeleton in which competitors rocket down an icy chute head-first.
Then there’s the American TV favorite: figure skating. It’s music and ballet and falls that bring gasps. It consistently produces American gold medalists who become popular stars, such as Peggy Fleming (1968), Dorothy Hamill (1976), Kristi Yamaguchi (1992), Tara Lipinksi (1998) and Sarah Hughes (2002). This year, American hopes for gold in women’s figure skating ride on Ashley Wagner and Gracie Gold.
There’s more going on than sports, of course. At a cost of $50 billion, these Olympic Games will be the most expensive in history, in part because of the extraordinary security measures. The Russian province of Chechnya where Russia is fighting rebels is only 500 miles from Sochi. There also are terror threats coming from other groups and regions. Russian President Vladimir Putin has added a security “ring of steel” to the Olympic rings. About 40,000 Russian security forces are working to protect athletes and visitors from around the world.
There are also less dangerous but heated political issues. Many object to Russia’s treatment of gay people and Putin’s repression of free speech. Such concerns do raise questions of whether the Olympic movement founded on Western ideals should hold the games in places as repressive as Russia and China.
In part, Olympic leaders take the games to repressive nations because those nations hunger for the prestige and have the capacity to make the huge investment in facilities. But there also is always the hope that engagement in sport can remind all nations of their common humanity and mutual striving to achieve.
Let us hope that spirit burns in Sochi as bright as the Olympic flame and that the games go on in peace.