Column: Highs, Lows of Winter Olympics

Warm weather, bronze water, corruption and craziness in Sochi – yet it's still a great place to see amazing athletes at height of their games
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

Why in the world are the Winter Olympics in Sochi, one of Russia’s warmest places? Chalk it up to corruption – both the Russians’, which we’ve come to expect, and the International Olympic Committee’s, which … we’ve also come to expect. The IOC hasn’t just shown a willingness to be bought, but an insistence. If you don’t pay ‘em, you ain’t getting the Olympics.

That’s how you get a Winter Olympic skating rink built in the shade of palm trees. The warm weather is funny, unless you spent your entire life training for these Olympics, and there’s no snow. Then it’s just heartbreaking.

Sochi will also be remembered for the bronze water you can’t drink, and the ritual police beatings of a punk music group called Pussy Riot – which is the kind of name you come up with when you want to call yourself something shocking, but you don’t know English very well.

But this is important, for two reasons. First, it allows journalists to say Pussy Riot on the air. I don’t think my boss will let me say it next week. And second, it restores our sense of moral superiority. This way, we can still hate the Russians – then beat them in hockey.

And that’s exactly what the Americans did, thanks to a guy named T.J. Oshie.

Oshie is from a Minnesota town about six miles from the Canadian border called Warroad. It’s home to fewer than 2,000 people, but its hockey players have won silver medals in 1956 and 1972, and gold medals in 1960 and 1980. Oshie did his part for his remarkable little town when he scored in the eighth-round of the overtime shoot-out, to beat the Russians, 3-2 – and force millions of Americans to look up T.J. Oshie, and find out where he plays. People in St. Louis were surprised to discover that he lives there.

But it was not the Miracle on Ice – and it never will be again. Unless, that is, Al Qaeda puts together the best team in the history of hockey, then gets beaten by a bunch of American college players. Yes, young listeners, that’s how it felt in 1980.

Today the hockey players are millionaires who devote exactly two weeks to the Olympics, in a glorified all-star weekend. Sorry, that’s not the same.

The women, in contrast, are deeply invested. They play together all year, and you see their passion every time the U.S. plays Canada. For two countries that share the world’s longest undefended border, what little hate exists between them seems to be centralized in these two teams. They go at it with everything they’ve got every time they meet, including Canada’s 3-2 come-from-behind victory for the gold medal on Thursday.

Speaking of Canada: their Team House had a beer vending machine that dropped cold Molsons, but only if you scanned your Canadian passports. So, my question: What exactly does it take to get a Canadian passport?

Their Olympic coverage is better than ours, too. On NBC you see people talking. Flip to CBC, and you see athletes competing. Go back: People talking. Back again: Athletes competing. The Canucks just might be on to something here.

The U.S. networks – and it really doesn’t matter which one has the Games – happily interrupt the live action to give us pre-packaged personal stories, including The Worst Interview of the XXII Winter Olympiad. Just seconds after U.S. skier Bode Miller finished another disappointing run, Kristen Cooper grilled him about his dead brother until he cried. Nice work.

Some events seem less like sports than hobbies that nobody should be watching. Yet, we do. There’s no better example than curling – which is like bowling, but slower. We don’t know any of the curlers. They wear silly pants. They push brooms. We have no idea how the scoring works. And yet, we cannot look away. It is the lava lamp of Olympic sports.

So why are we Americans not dominating that sport? Seems like it was made for us. Even if we did win in it, we might not know, because NBC seems determined not to show any medal ceremonies – why, I have no idea.

Of course, there have been plenty of heroics, and much of it by athletes with Michigan ties – at least 18 of them, not even counting the Red Wings who play for other countries. At one point, the state of Michigan could claim more medals than 89 countries. And they say we’re dead? Suck it, Ohio!

The Winter Olympics can be corrupt, crass and downright crazy. But when the commercial chaos clears, we get to see these amazing athletes at the height of their games – and the spontaneous joy is something you can’t get anywhere else.

About the writer: Ann Arbor resident John U. Bacon is the author of the national bestsellers Fourth and Long: The Future of College Football,Bo’s Lasting Lessons” and “Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football.” You can follow him on Twitter (@Johnubacon), and at

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