Olympic Fever

So this is the part of the year where we should all be enjoying award show after award show and the big episodes that come around during February sweeps.

Typically, those episodes include weddings, deaths, or major plot events. Networks try their damnest to get viewership during the crucial sweeps months and February is at the top of the list. However, all of that changes every four years when the winter Olympics come around. Sure, the summer Olympics are in on it too, but they run during a time when networks are mostly showing reruns.

For the Olympic games to be in February is a big deal, and with the exception of the Nancy/Tonya situation in 1994, they typically don’t pull huge viewership by comparison to a Super-bowl or even a summer games.

However, instead of being annoyed by this year’s weird Oscar calendar or lack of original programming, why not embrace the winter Olympics. I for one have always preferred the winter Olympics for one very special reason: figure skating. Okay, laugh all you want, but some of that stuff is either a) amazing or b) a hot tranny mess. Look no further than the current world champions in ice-dance and Olympic favorites, Russian’s Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin, and their “original dance.” No seriously, YouTube it immediately. The fact that this “scolding hot mess” is a favorite to win proves how viewer-friendly figure skating can be.

In all truth, I find the winter games enjoyable beyond just the ice rink. The winter games are a bit less commercial and yet just as enjoyable as the summer games. Furthermore, I just enjoy the sports that are highlighted more. For instance, the winter games bring us sports that we don’t typically see. So instead of racing and basketball, we get curling and bobsled. It introduces us to something new and different. Therefore, I plan on using this week’s column to highlight five things that you should pay attention to during these games.

1. The Opening Ceremony

We barely have that epic Beijing thing out of head when we are confronted with another opening ceremony. I can still hear those angry Chinese drummers and see those crazy acrobats. However, on Friday night, it all started up again. There were plenty of tributes to the people and places of Canada. There were also lots of lyrical interpretations of Olympic history by dancers draped in flowy and unflattering outfits.

Last but not least, we got to experience Matt Lauer and Meredith Viera trying to maintain their composure and interest while reading off the seven million countries and all of their athletes.

2. The Slopes

Sure, there is always Bode Miller and his big bag of BS, but this year, the slopes should provide real superstars to the American public and the American talent bookers who desperately want a new Michelle Kwan, Shaun White, or Apollo. All this could be heaped on the back of Lindsey Vonn. Vonn is an alpine skiing superstar who is both cover model and favorite. In Torino, four years ago, she had a horrible run during a practice and injured herself to the point of almost not competing. She did compete and came in an impressive 8th. However, she was and is the favorite. If there is no similar injuries, look for Vonn to compete (and truly be competitive) in five different races. She could be the face of the Olympics, especially considering that there isn’t a female US figure skater with a chance. Vonn recently appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated, which can be a curse, but advertisers and viewers are hoping otherwise.

3. Ice Dance

Not only are those pesky Russians the favorites, but they are drawing tons of controversy for their offensive and laughable “original dance.” However, aside from them, there are two American teams that could actually medal (and possibly gold). The first is the reigning Olympic silver medalists, Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto. This team worked their way up the standings in Torino, and finished a strong second place behind more Russians. According to the logic, it should be their gold to lose. However, in the four years since, they have had some inconsistent results due to their schedules and injuries. Besides a Canadian team or two, their big rival is the other American team, Charlie White and Meryl Davis. This team sort of came out of no-where to quickly bypass Belbin and Agosto as America’s top ranked team. They recently won the Grand Prix Final and the U.S. Championships. In easy terms, there are about four teams that have a chance at the podium, and two are from the U.S. This is exciting for a country that has never done well in this discipline.

4. The Superstars

From Shaun White to Shante Davis, this year’s Olympics are delivering lots of star power. Sure, NBC prayed that Sasha Cohen would have qualified, but there are still plenty of stars.

Shaun White was THE superstar out of the Torino games. Since his gold medal win, he has enjoyed a successful snowboarding and skateboarding career. He has also become marketable with a line of clothing at Target and various endorsements. He appeals to the “Hot Topic” kids and that’s a big market.

Of course, the other huge name is Apollo Anton Ono. A winner of five Olympic medals, there is a sense that he has still never had the big games. Sure he won gold in Salt Lake City and Torino, but expectations were for a haul. Perhaps this will be his time to really make a statement. He has parlayed his Olympic victories into endorsements, sponsorships, oh, and a winning run on ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars.”

5. Okay…give me a moment…SINGLES ICE SKATING.

No, we don’t have a Tonya and Nancy situation. We don’t even have a Michelle Kwan to root for (god, I miss her). What we do have are two fantastic competitions. First off are the men, with the deepest field in recent memory. You have Canadian Patrick Chan and French champion Brian Joubert. You have returning silver medalist, Stephane Lambiel. You also have a contingent of talented Asian skaters joining drama king, Johnny Weir. However, the three names that you should pay attention too are Evan Lysacek, Jeremy Abbott, and Evgeni Plushenko. Lysacek is the reigning world champion, and probably America’s best chance at a singles Olympic skating medal. Abbot is the reigning US Champion who posted a season high score en route to beating Lysacek. Finally, you have Plushenko who has returned from retirement to repeat his gold medal win in Torino. He has to be considered the favorite to win the first back to back gold medal in men’s skating in fifty years.

On to the marquee event, the women’s final. America has a slight chance at a medal in Rachael Flatt. The reigning U.S. champion is consistent, but lacks the spark and flare to win. The same could be said for reigning world silver medalist, Joannie Rochette of Canada. That leaves the battle for gold between a handful of talented women from Asia. In 2006, Japan won its first ladies title ever when Shizuka Arakawa came out of a two year slump to beat Sasha Cohen and Irina Slutskaya. This year, Japan will throw out two former world champions, Miki Ando and Mao Asada. Asada was considered the best skater in the world for about three solid years. Then she was consistently dethroned by the gold medal favorite and current world champion, Yu-Na Kim of South Korea. Kim has posted some of the highest scores in history and is considered a superstar in South Korea. It will be interesting to see how she responds to the pressure of the Olympic Games. She is considered such a heavy favorite that anything less than gold would be a disappointment to South Korea. However, Asada at her best is a worthy champion and could derail a shaky Kim.

I suppose I should address the pairs for a second. The U.S. has no chance in hell at medal. However, for the first time in fifty years, there are no true Russian contenders. Expect competitors from Canada, Germany and Japan, to all try, but probably fail to dethrone semi-retired Shen and Zhao of China. I suppose they are the athletes that I am rooting for the most, as they are two-time Olympic bronze medalists. In Torino, they were struck with an injury that wouldn’t let them practice and in Salt Lake City, they were the forgotten bronze metal team at the bottom of that whole nasty (delicious) scandal between the Canadian and Russian co-gold medal conspiracy. THAT WAS SOME GOOD TV!

So in the end, I would simply say, don’t be too sad about the loss of “The Office” or “30 Rock” because there is still good TV to watch with plenty of drama. I mean, can you think of anything better on a snowed-in evening than to curl up with some Olympic spirit and a big mug of hot chocolate?

Wayne Bell is a regular contributor for the Fayetteville Flyer. He moved to Fayetteville in 2003 for his Masters Degree and you can almost always catch him at Little Bread Co. or Hammontree’s. For more of Wayne’s contributions, visit his author page.