It’s again time for the Winter Olympics, and my spirits are rising. They do that because of the luge. That’s an Olympics sport in which one or two possibly insane persons lie face up on a small sled and slide down an icy track at speeds approaching 90 mph or death, whichever comes first.
Every two years when I watch the Winter Olympics on television and see the luge competition, I’m filled with immense gratitude that I am not aboard a luge. If I ever fall into a depression, I’ll ask my doctor to show me films of the luge, and I’ll immediately be cured. Even today, when I feel down, I tell myself, “At least you’re not on a luge.”
Oddly enough, I like the sound of the word “luge.” I think it’s pronounced “loodgsh” or maybe “looshz.” Nice and mushy, like being kissed by a woman with a mouthful of ice cream. The word luge comes from an obscure language and means “small sled.” That’s enough lugery, for now.
As I’m sure you know, the 2014 Winter Olympics will start soon in a city we’re all familiar with, the Black Sea port of Sochi, Russia. Its nickname is “The Summer Capital of Russia,” which gives rise to the question, “Why stage winter sports in a summer playground?” The apparent answer is that for two months a year, Sochi gets cold enough to permit Russia to spend billions of rubles to build Olympic ice rinks, ski slopes and luge runs. Also, to hire a gazillion security guards to prevent nasty tricks by anti-Russia terrorists from Chechnya, Faloopistan and other advanced civilizations of that region.
Controversy has already arisen for the Olympics, even before they start. As I write this, on Jan. 15, howls of distress have erupted because an elite ice-skating committee has mysteriously awarded a trip to Sochi to a female ice skater even though she fell flat on her tush twice during a crucial recent performance. The committee thereby ousted the Sochi hopes of another female skater whose performance was judged 10 points better than perfect.
Another question: can an Olympics visitor who loves sushi find sushi in Sochi? I did some research, and the answer is yes. Sochi is 990 miles south of Moscow. Its history goes back thousands of years. It’s present population is 415,000, but it was a small city until the 1930s, when Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin said, “Da vilna ke noshkamini pucht!” (Let’s beef up this burg!). And, lo, new hotels, parks, malls and Dunkin Donuts stands suddenly appeared. Today Sochi is much like Manhattan, in that few of the cab drivers speak English and tend to overcharge their passengers.
Sochi has 4 million visitors each year, but only 3 percent come from outside Russia. Humidity is high, but the sun shines 300 days each year, by order of President Putin. The city contains a hundred ethnic groups; the vast majority are Orthodox Christians.
None of this information answers the question “Why does the Olympic Committee give out gold, silver and bronze medals to the best athletes?” At the end of each event, why doesn’t the head honcho simply say, “Y’all did just great!” and let everyone go home happy? Also, why the nationalistic score cards? “So far, the USA has won six golds, and China only four, which means the world is safe for democracy for another two years. Yippee!”
One possible answer is international status-seeking. Another is money. In this day and age, big sports means big bucks for the big boys who run things. With millions of TV viewers looking on, advertisers lay out small fortunes for every 30-second commercial spot. Sizeable endorsement payoffs can go to the athletes who win gold in the major events such as figure skating and ski jumping.
But a less cynical view of the Olympics says they are held because around the world are thousands of dedicated athletes whose minds are dominated by these thoughts: “How good can I get? What would it feel like to stand on up there with a medal around my neck while they play my national anthem?”
As a congenitally lazy man, I can’t begin to imagine the years of discipline and sacrifice Olympic-class candidates must endure on their long, lonely trip to the high ground. I think the biggest payoff for any Olympics contestant, win or lose, must surely be the inner voice that whispers, “You did it, pal. You didn’t quit. You made it to the Big Show, and you gave it your best shot.” What a lovely sound to carry with you for the rest of your life.