Saturday, February 20, 2010

What Does it Take to Be an Olympic Athlete?

I really love the Winter Olympics. My favorite sports to watch are downhill skiing, snowboarding, speed skating, and ice skating.  I'll watch any winter sport that is fast, icy, and graceful.  Not that I want to try them myself, as I am a middling skier, have never tried snowboarding, and go ice skating about once a year with the kids. But I'm impressed with the skill and athletic prowess of the Winter Olympics athletes, and the joy they can take in their sport: J.R. Celski, Rachel Flatt, Apolo Anton Ohno, Hannah Kearney, the pairs skating winners Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo.

Something seems different this year, though. I cringed as I watched three skiers crash in the women's final of the alpine downhill - one of them tossed into the air at one point like a rag doll - while navigating a course that the commentators admitted might be too difficult for them. In that event, Lindsey Vonn skied her final, gold-medal run in pain, favoring her injured right shin on the turns. I've seen the footage of J.R. Celski bleeding on the track after a serious injury during the Olympic trials in September far too many times. Already, of course, one Olympic athlete, the Georgian athlete Nodar Kumaritashvili has died on a luge training run.

The competition is not just about the participants' athletic abilities and their psychological skills in focusing on the task at hand. It's also about their ability to risk and recover from serious injuries, in order to win on courses that seem to be designed to be as dangerous as possible.

The NBC commentators recite a litany medical problems for each athlete (past knee surgeries, back injuries, concussions, severe lacerations), citing them as evidence of the athlete's triumph over obstacles. I don't see it that way. To me, it seems like reaching the level of an Olympic athlete sometimes requires the athlete to be willing to take inhuman risks in the name of winning. Grace, athleticism, and perseverance - what I enjoy watching - are secondary. Is that sport anymore? Or something else?