Jeansonne: In search of relevance, a little danger has been added to Winter Games in recent years
No edition of the Olympics arrives without some stewing over whether such an expensive, ephemeral endeavor actually matters. With the old fuzzy-wuzzy notion of starving-artist athletes long dead and the Games' once-central function as war without bullets mostly outdated, there is a persisting question of whether the Games remain relevant.
A United States hockey gold medal this month would be almost as unexpected as in 1980, but if the Yanks should beat the Russians in the semifinals this time - as they did in Lake Placid then - it would not be against what President Ronald Reagan called "the evil empire." It would be against a few guys who make a good living in the States with the NHL, the most prominent of them being Alex Ovechkin, as beloved in Washington, D.C., as Reagan was 30 years ago.
To the red-meat American sports fan - gorging on baseball, football and basketball - the Olympics may seem nothing but a big snowball fight among widely unknown athletes with largely unpronounceable names from predominantly unfamiliar corners of the world. A mysterious blur of strange events, wrapped in the atmospherics occasionally conjuring a fashion show, it puts figure skating center stage.
So with television ratings skewed toward older viewers and women, Olympic officials have sought to counter the claims of traditional sports news outlets - that "nobody cares" about the Olympics - by increasingly filling the Games' schedule with more spectacular, and more dangerous, events. Snowboarding, aerial skiing, skeleton and short-track speedskating - all contested with the decided potential for a sensational crackup - have been brought into the Olympic tent in the past 16 years.
Friday's training-run death of Nodar Kumaritashvili from the Republic of Georgia came in one of the older Olympic sports, luge, which has been on the program since 1964. But officials had expressed concern that the luge track at Whistler Sliding Center was so fast, with a top speed of 95.65 mph last year.
It's just that a playing-with-matches strategy is selling: Compare risk-taking snowboarder Shaun White's 700,000 Facebook page followers to some 30,000 for pre-Games cover girl Lindsey Vonn, currently the world's best at the ancient sport of Alpine skiing - itself not exactly a safe exercise but one that typically is viewed as staid by the snowboard generation.
Counterintuitive to this evolving Olympic deal with the devil-may-care sports is the presence of curling, a form of shuffleboard on ice that somehow gets NFL-like attention in Canada, where there are complaints that the Vancouver curling venues are too small.
In the end, the magic of the "Olympic" name is working as well as ever. NBC was willing to pay an average of not quite $1 billion per Games for broadcast rights to every Olympics between 2000 and 2012. As a marketing vehicle, not even the Super Bowl can match the exposure of a 17-day festival. China eagerly awaits a breakout of medal winners in Vancouver as further demonstration of its emergence as a global power.
The sense of big money as an Olympic goal, of athletes cashing in and officials paying off, of doping and cheating judges, may dull the quasi-religious awe that Olympic patriots attach to the Games. Yet the corny, one-world kinship keeps shouldering its way onto center stage.
And, as Olympic historian John MacAloon recently observed, the Games "are life itself. If the Games were more pure and perfect, they'd be less appealing. They mirror not just a dream version of life, they also mirror the things we struggle with as ordinary human beings. None of us lives a dream; we live messy, ordinary lives." Which matter.