Pyeongchang — a complete disaster.
Or is it?
Surely, on first glance it would seem like the XXIII Olympic Winter Games are destined to go down as one of the great sporting fiascos of Olympic history.
The NHL, in its greed as opposed to its wisdom, chose not to release its players to compete for their countries, thereby kneecapping what was, since Nagano in 1998, the headliner of the Winter Games.
This, along with hopeless prime-time broadcast problems for the European and North American audiences, led to papers and broadcasters slashing the funds they’d usually send.
Then came Tuesday: the International Olympic Committee’s decision to prohibit Russia from Pyeongchang as punishment for years of state-endorsed athlete doping. Given that Russians took roughly one out of every five medals given in Sochi four decades back, this is somewhat like advising the two-time defending-champion Pittsburgh Penguins that, due to infractions by a number of the players, the group won’t be permitted to play in the Stanley Cup playoffs this spring.
It looked like a disaster in the making — and may yet prove to be precisely that.
That it may not turn out as badly as envisioned must do with the international sporting world revealing a rare place of common sense, a fast outbreak of sanity formerly unheard of whenever the Olympics and politics are involved.
The IOC chose to prohibit Russia but not Russians. No Russian flag, no recognizable Russian anthem, but accepted (clean) and capable athletes with Russian birth certificates are welcome to compete under the neutral, if rather silly, banner of “Olympic Athletes from Russia.”
Difficult to believe, but back in 1896, when French Baron Pierre de Coubertin revived the ancient Olympics in Athens, there was no politics, no flags, no nation designations. Flags first flew in London in 1908 and insanity has ensued since.
This time, however, the IOC decided there are no “blockade” of Russia, as decades past had occurred to those nations on the losing ends of the world wars. This was wise, as surely (prayers said, deep breath, all fingers crossed) you will find a few exceptional Russian athletes that have actually done it by themselves.
As Canada’s Beckie Scott, who dropped a gold medal in cross-country skiing to 2 doped Russians in 2002 but was later awarded it, said: “A day like today actually infuses some optimism and restores some faith in the sport bodies and direction that’s controlling and managing sport right now … a step in the right direction.”
The next fear was that there would be a “boycott” by Russia of the Games. There are far, far too many previous boycotts to record. In 1976 alone, almost 30 countries refused to attend the Montreal Games for an assortment of reasons. In 1980, the USA and dozens of nations refused to go to Moscow since the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan, a country the United States would invade a generation later. In 1984, the Soviets boycotted the Los Angeles Games.
“An Olympic boycott hasn’t achieved anything,” IOC president Thomas Bach said.
Thankfully, Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed with him. Putin had problems with the IOC ban, but not one with these athletes, who’d trained hard, going if they could.
“We won’t declare any type of blockade,” Putin said after the IOC announced its choice. “We won’t block out Olympians from occurring if any of them want to participate as individuals. They’ve been preparing for these contests for their entire careers, and for them it is very important.”
Suddenly instead of the end of story, there are story lines everywhere. If a Russian athlete wins gold, and has been pretested and preapproved, those who regularly dismiss any Russian success will be made to accept this, just maybe, this gold-medal winner is really the very best in the world at their sport.
It might even mean that the surprise websites feeling of the Sochi Games — the Russian women curlers, using their lingerie presents with curling brooms and stones, with their loud, boisterous and so-un-curling lovers — may be back. Or not, as Ekaterina Galkina, a part of Anna Sidorova’s group, is still being investigated for questionable samples given in the lead-up into the Sochi Games.
In terms of hockey, still the No. 1 Olympic attraction for Canada, defender of the gold medal in both men’s and women’s competition, this might end up being the most interesting Winter Games since 1998, when women’s hockey was brought in along with the NHLers were permitted to play.
Women’s hockey has become deservedly a significant attraction. The ability levels since Nagano have risen dramatically and an Olympic match between the Canadians and the Americans is always a highlight of the Games.
On the men’s side, there’s the appeal of vast unknowns. Will enough Russians be utilized to bring gold, eventually, to the group that normally brings the best quantity of skill but is unable to put it all together? Will a team like Switzerland or Latvia or Slovakia surprise? Can Canadians get behind a jury-rigged set of players from various leagues and levels who do not have million-dollar contracts to return to, but most assuredly have something to prove?
The truth is that men’s hockey at the Olympics has grown somewhat tired because the excitement of Nagano and the Canadians picking up their first gold in 50 years in Salt Lake City.
The championship in Sochi, besides one fabulous match between Russia and the USA, was little different from overcoached, defence-obsessed NHL hockey, the gold-medal game between Canada and Sweden little different from a Tuesday night in New Jersey during the regular NHL season.
A dose of the unknown and unpredictable might be just what is needed.
So don’t write off Pyeongchang just yet.
Courtesy: The Globe And Mail