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Hold the Hype

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We are midway through the greatest Olympics of all time! No, that is not quite true, but the hyperbole surrounding the Vancouver Games has been far more in excess than the snow. The epitome was the US-Canada hockey match. The Americans won in what was billed as a repeat of the "Miracle on Ice," the 1980 US victory over the Russians. It was a good -- maybe even great -- hockey game, but there were no miracles involved.

The 1980 game in Lake Placid featured an amateur U.S. squad of college kids against the best "professional" team in the world -- the Soviet juggernaut. It deserved the hype because of the extremely long odds involved. Even so, there were no crippled children who were made to walk after the 3rd period.

By comparison, everyone on the ice last night in the U.S.-Canada match-up was an NHL player. Anyone could tell you that on any given night one group of professionals can beat another. No one goes undefeated. The Canadian squad is filled with some of the greatest stars in the League, but the U.S. team, with a hot goalie, was not chopped liver. I guess part of the problem was that some Canadians had made this game a matter of national survival, let alone pride. The message from the game is clear: do not let any talented group of athletes tell you who you are.

These Games have had their stellar moments, of course. Every four years we rediscover short track skating, a spectacular rush on what seems like a tiny arena covered by ice. Apolo Ohno is certainly an attractive star who works hard for his medals. I was particularly dazzled by the relay race which features seemingly hundreds of skaters all doing their own thing together in that small space.

The skiers and snow boarders have added further zest to the mix, although NBC seems most taken with their spills on the way down. The cross races, which are aptly promoted as NASCAR on snow, are fun, and almost everyone gets up from his or her spill. The figure skating is predictable and might very well be re-runs from prior Games with new names attached.

My wife and I have once again found delight in curling, a combination (as someone said) of ice skating, shuffleboard and housework. Here is a sport we can identify with and might (emphasis on the "might") be able to do -- if the streets freeze over. Pushing a "rock" down a sheet of ice to the "house" sounds like fun -- and then you get to sweep it into a bend. Great stuff.

Yet despite all of this, these are not the greatest Games ever, nor will any one victory or medal be the ultimate judgment. These are great athletes, but these athletes fail on occasion, as we all do. The Games began with a stark reminder that these young men and women are involved in dangerous activity. The death of the luger from Georgia was the result, at least in part, of an effort on the part of those who designed the Games to achieve their hyperbole. The sliding track was too fast and the walls too low. After the tragedy, they made the necessary adjustments and the sport was able to continue without further incidents.

The quadrennial Olympics are the only time folks watch most of these sports. Their reappearance is part of the pleasure. What is unnecessary is an effort to sell the Games as the greatest ever. We then confuse success on the ice and snow with success as a country. We like to rank things, but the U.S. is not the greatest country in the history of the world simply because it wins an array of medals. The need to boast may be a human trait, but so too should be a desire to make sure the hungry are fed and the sick are healed.

There is abroad in the land a jingo spirit that is embodied in the Olympic cheer "USA, USA." The teabaggers chanted this refrain in Nashville before Sarah Palin paid her visit. It is fine to root for your team during a game, but American politics is not a sporting match. Listening to rightwing blowhards, you might get the impression that those who would oppose them are the devil incarnate who have come up from below to bring tyranny to America. Perhaps they might learn a lesson from curling. There is no trash talking on the ice. No one tries to steal your broom. There are rarely any injuries, and when the game is out of reach, the loser concedes by shaking hands. You can't do that if you have labeled your opponents the devil.

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