Saturday, February 15, 2014

Gold Medal in Hype

If you watch any of the Olympics, you can't help but be impressed with the determination of the athletes. Or their skill and technical ability. Or their grace under incredible pressure. But as entertaining as the games are, I don't think I can keep watching if Scott Hamilton keeps yelling at me.

Hamilton is an impressive individual, to be sure. A four-time world and US figure skating champion and gold medalist himself, he has also overcome personal crises from testicular cancer to a brain tumor. He's a Special Olympics global ambassador, and founded the "Stars on Ice" tour, now in its 28th season. And once again this year he is one of the announcers for Olympics coverage on NBC.

Now, I'm not a big figure skating fan, but I can appreciate the level of athleticism it takes to skate down a rink at full speed, jump into the air, spin around and then land with a flourish. I could do none of that. Well, that's not strictly true. I wouldn't be able to skate at full speed, let alone jump and turn. But I could land with a flourish, as long as by "flourish" you mean falling spectacularly on the ice and crashing into the boards. That I could do.

Still, these are the people who do this for a living. And so once you get past that this is the norm, some critical commentary should be in order. Professional broadcasters are paid not to be rabid fans, but knowledgeable and critical viewers. You want to feel that you are watching any event, be it ski jumping or curling, with a good friend who has some experience in the sport, who can explain to you the nuances you don't get at first glance, and give you a candid appraisal of the talent on display. It should be a like a Super Bowl party at your buddy's house, minus the chips and salsa, though that combination would be a natural with luge as well.

And I get that this is the Olympics, so complete impartiality is not in the cards. We want to root for Team USA, and its roster of good looking, enthusiastic youngsters, each of whom seems not only impossibly photogenic, but well-spoken and poised. It's worth noting you can see those qualities on display even if you can't understand a word they are saying. After all, Sage Kotsenburg, the winner of the first ever gold medal in slopestype snowboarding, described his run this way: "Yeah. So I, uh, dropped in, and I did a Cab 270 onto the first down rail, then followed up with a half cab on, back five off, on the second feature, and then a half cab up, lay backside 180 off the cannon box, then a Cab Double Cork 1260 Holy Crail from 10 off the toe with rocket air, then a Back 1620 Japan." I actually have no idea what he said, but he did so with impressive authority.

But back to Hamilton. If you shout "Awesome!" breathlessly on every jump, every spin, every twirl, it loses its potency. Especially when even I can see that some tricks are better than others. I get that he knows these people, has been in their boots and is an enthusiastic booster. But the power of Al Michaels' famous 1980 call when the US ice hockey team defeated Team Russia at Lake Placid was precisely because he didn't deploy his powder too early. And so as time wound down and he shouted, "Do you believe in miracles? YES!" it had some heft to go with moment. If Hamilton keeps shouting "Amazing" and "Perfect" for every Yevgeny, Dick and Harry, he's crying wolf a little too much.

But it may be too late for restraint, as Hamilton's style seems to have carried over to other disciplines. I was watching the women's biathlon, that vaguely James Bond-ish of sports, where athletes in sleek bodysuits skiing at top speed morph into military sharpshooters. A big draw in Finland and Germany, it has its admirers and fans as well. But as one women stretched to make the finish line, the announcer was screaming, "Amazing! I have not seen this many surprises ever in a biathlon race in my life!" But as sportswriter Andrew Perloff tweeted, "What about Nagano in '98? How soon we forget." See, a little perspective would be nice.


Marc Wollin of Bedford would like to watch the Olympics with just crowd noise. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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