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Mountain Men: The Sochi downhill and the uphill battle of Michael Sam

 Matthias Mayer is the new king of the downhill. Photograph by Manfred Werner.

Matthias Mayer is the new king of the downhill. Photograph by Manfred Werner.

The Caucasus are a long way from the gridirons of America, but they both yielded big news Sunday, Feb. 9 that spoke to the allure of male power and its limitations.

Matthias Mayer of Austria took gold in the men’s downhill – one of the most glamorous, thrilling and dangerous of Olympic sports – ending a 12-year Austrian drought in the event. (I love how Bob Costas, who seems to be reporting from a set that looks like something out of “Star Wars,” told the NBC audience that the Austrian press ran photos of the Austrian ski team with the captions “Loser No. 1, Loser No. 2, Loser No. 3 and Loser No. 4.” Um, memo to people who think sports aren’t political – Exhibits A, B, C and D. Just one more example of how the games men play are the games nations play.)

The men’s downhill is two minutes and change of pure testosterone. It’s men against a mountain and a clock. Hemingway couldn’t have scripted a crisper, cleaner, crueler narrative. And while the women ski the same disciplines as the men, I don’t know, they’re not as exciting.

“It’s just in my mind, for lack of a better word, kind of a manly sport,” veteran American skier Marco Sullivan said of the downhill in The New York Times. And it demonstrates what’s so attractive about men – their speed, their power, their abandon, for no one wins the downhill without combining technique with risk-taking. Veer too much to the former and you’ll ski too cautiously. Stray too close to the latter and you’ll crash and burn. (American favorite Bode Miller, anyone?)

The dark-horse winner Mayer said he eliminated his final training runs to conserve power for the race. That comment conveys the truth of power, which is as much about retaining as it is attaining.

 Michael Sam, the University of Missouri defensive lineman who’s just come out, will test the NFL draft – and NFL tolerance.

Michael Sam, the University of Missouri defensive lineman who’s just come out, will test the NFL draft – and NFL tolerance.

When you have power, you don’t want to lose it. And that means you cannot afford to tolerate anything that challenges the status quo. While Mayer was capturing the downhill, ice dancers and gold medal faves Meryl Davis and Charlie White were skating the story of Scheherazade, the canny princess who tells her kingly husband 1,000 tales as a way of getting him to spare her life. Such is the conversational ability of women. Such is the quixotic power of men.

That’s why it will be interesting to see what happens to Michael Sam, the acclaimed defensive lineman from the University of Missouri who’s just come out and who will test the NFL draft in May.

Will Sam be drafted? And if he is, what will be the reaction of his new teammates? So far the signals have been mixed. His U of Mo teammates surmised and seemed to have protected him. But college ball is a world apart from the NFL where some players, coaches and execs alike have been overtly and covertly homophobic.

It’s one of the reasons that the star quarterback at the heart of my upcoming novel  “In This Place You Hold Me” is closeted. (Read the first chapter here.)

It’s a timely story.  But I wish it were not so.