Experts will tell you that the high-pressured setting of the Olympics’ global stage is like no other. It can make the favorites fall and rise again and the dark horses surge to the front of the finish line.
That was certainly the case of the magical two weeks in PyeongChang, whose motto might’ve been “Expect the unexpected.”
It was a time when America lost its record for most medals in the Winter Games (37, Vancouver) to Norway (brilliant with 39) while setting a new record for medaling in the greatest number of different events (11). So what Team USA sometimes lacked in depth, particularly in the glamour sports of alpine skiing and figure skating, it made up for in breadth – taking surprise golds in a women’s cross-country sprint relay and, yes, men’s curling, then coming from behind to take down the Canadian women’s hockey team, four-time champs, for a different kind of “Miracle on Ice.”
Everyone seemed to catch improbability fever. WAG’s February covergirl Mikaela Shiffrin won gold in the giant slalom, not her best event, then failed to medal in her best event, the slalom, before taking silver in the super combined. (Her self-deprecating gratitude proved a breath of fresh air in an interview with NBC anchor Mike Tirico – a most worthy successor to Bob Costas – as did retiring bronze medalist Lindsey Vonn’s elegiac teamwork on and off the slopes.)
Czech Republic snowboarder Ester Ledecká earned two golds – one in an entirely different discipline, the super-G or super giant slalom. Matthias Meyer crashed out of the downhill, failing to defend his gold from that event in Sochi, only to take gold in the men’s super-G. Figure skater Nathan Chen fell in the team and short programs, then redeemed himself in the free skate with a technical tour de force, while Adam Rippon made a name for himself with the skates of his life. And Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu who became the first male figure skater since Dick Button (1948 and ’52) to win back-to-back golds, offered a revelatory interpretation in the post-competition gala of Camille Saint-Saëns’ “The Dying Swan,” a work previously associated with prima ballerinas and, in figure skating, with Oksana Baiul.
Speaking of Baiul, her spirit and that of commentator Tara Lipinski were very much on the ice during the women’s electrifying free skate as Russians Evgenia Medvedeva and Alina Zagitova faced off for the gold. And just as Baiul had slipped by Nancy Kerrigan in Lillehammer in 1994 with her youthful triple jumps and Lipinski out-tripled Michelle Kwan with her teenage confidence four years later at Nagano, 15-year-old Zagitova put on a pyrotechnical display to Ludwig Minkus’ “Don Quixote” to best the 18-year-old Medvedeva. Nothing haunted quite like Medvedeva’s flushed, tear-stained face, fresh from a stunningly mature interpretation of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina on ice, hoping against hope for a gold medal that was not to be. She is so young and yet, the torch would seem to have already been passed.
Certainly, that was the not-so-subtle theme of the closing ceremony, which featured commentary by the hot-hot-hot duo of Lipinski and Johnny Weir, WAG’s January 2014 cover guy. Already, they’ve eclipsed Olympic gold medalist and skating commentator Scott Hamilton, who’s been gracious about taking a back seat.
But the passing of the torch was also literally apparent as PyeongChang handed off the Olympic flag to Beijing, host of the 2022 Winter Games. Meanwhile, the 2020 Summer Games will be in Tokyo. Technologically cutting-edge and economically ascendant, Asia is where it’s at – in sports and geopolitics.
Is America – host of the 2028 Summer Games – going to take this lying down? “The truth,” the ancient Greek dramatist Aristophanes wrote, “is forced upon us very quickly by a (rival).”
Time for America’s athletes and their countrymen and women to show if we’re Medvedeva or Zagitova.
Can’t let go of the Olympics just yet? No need to. The amazing Paralympians are set to star in PyeongChang March 8 through 18.