- Special Feature
Remembering why we love the Olympics: 100 days out
My first Winter Olympic memory -- my first memory of any kinds of Olympics -- was watching Franz Klammer (on our static-decorated and tiny television) going impossibly fast down a mountain in Innsbruck, Austria. That was 1976, and there was overwhelming pressure on Klammer to win the most prestigious Olympic gold medal in his home country. It was like the pressure Andy Murray felt to win Wimbledon.
To win, Klammer felt like he had to go down the mountain faster than he had ever gone before. And to do that he decided to push the limits of gravity. In my memory, he almost fell 239 times during his gold medal run, though it is possible that it wasn’t quite that many. There definitely were times he was flying sideways.
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Watching that run, I clearly remember thinking two things.
1. Franz Klammer had to be the single coolest guy on Earth.
2. Franz Klammer had to be -- at least slightly -- insane.
Here we are now, 100 days out from a Winter Olympics in Sochi that is very, very different from 1976. But you know what? In many ways, the theme remains the same. “What matters to us,” says Maddie Bowman, a 19-year-old American ski halfpipe prodigy who has been working on mastering an impossibly difficult jump called the alley-oop 540, “is looking cool.”
First, we should point out some of the differences from 1976 to now. In Innsbruck, there were 37 gold medals given out. In Sochi, there will be almost three times as many -- 98 total. Innsbruck was a 12-day competition featuring 37 countries. Sochi will be an 18-day extravaganza with more than 80 countries expected, several that did not exist in 1976.
These Olympics will include new things like slopestyle skiing and snowboarding (where the emphasis is on performing tricks over different parts of a course), team figure skating (people who love the sport are fascinated to see how such an individualized sport will work in a team environment) and team relay luge (which is just as ridiculously awesome as it sounds).
There were no Winter X Games when Klammer went hurtling down the mountain in 1976. There was no freestyle skiing at the Olympics -- it was not even recognized as a sport by skiing's governing body for three more years -- no curling, no snowboarding and no short track speed skating. The comedians used to joke on late-night talk shows: How many sports can they invent for SNOW anyway? There’s a point there. If you break the Winter Olympics down to its core, there are only six disciplines. There’s skating. There’s skiing. There’s the sledding sports of bobsled, luge and skeleton. There’s biathlon, hockey and curling. That’s all.
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But inside the sports are sports, and inside those sports are other sports. Just in skiing in Sochi there will be 10 alpine events, 12 cross-country events, 10 freestyle events, 10 more snowboarding events, four ski-jumping events (this year, for the first time, there will be a women’s ski-jumping competition) and three more events under Nordic combined -- which is a single competition combining cross-country skiing and ski jumping.
So that’s 49 gold medals that will be given out just to skiers and snowboarders of different talents (not to mention the biathletes, who contest 11 events that combine skiing and shooting). It can boggle the mind. But the truth is that if you give a certain breed of human being a mountain to go down, a rink of ice to create on or various high mounds of snow to jump from, they will all find a way to blow minds and do something faster and higher and more dangerous and maybe a bit like art. It’s true for kids on that first snow day. It was true for Franz Klammer when he needed to win a gold medal. It’s true now.
“Our sport is about emotion,” says Alex Shibutani, who will pair with his sister Maia in ice dancing. “We want to make people feel things.”
“We all know that it’s a little bit crazy what we do,” says freestyle skier Ashley Caldwell, who made the Olympic team in aerials as a 16-year-old in 2010. “That’s why when we see someone land a big jump we all think, ‘that was awesome.’ And then I try to do something even bigger.”
“I see the trick in my mind,” says David Wise, one of the best freestyle halfpipe skiers in the world, “and once I see it, then I go do it.”
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Devin Logan, who is trying to compete in both slopestyle and halfpipe and will turn 21 during the Olympics in Sochi, explained the essence of freestyle skiing, and maybe the essence of the whole Winter Olympics.
She said: “It all comes down to the harder the things you do, and the easier you make them look. That’s really the whole thing. Do something impossible. Make it look easy.”
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One hundred days out and here are 11 things I’m particularly looking forward to:
1. Defending Olympic downhill gold medalist Lindsey Vonn tries to come back from one more injury and win gold again in her utterly remarkable career. This time the injury is a torn ACL, torn MCL and fractured tibia suffered at the 2013 World Championships. She promises she will be in Sochi. She promises she will win gold. Tiger Woods should be there too, of course.
Embedded video_content_type: Lindsey Vonn becomes first U.S. woman to win downhill
2. The United States’ Evan Lysacek and Russia’s Yevgeny Plushenko, the men’s figure skating gold and silver medalists from Vancouver, are both trying to get back for a rematch of their classic figure skating duel of 2010. That was a contest that transcended the sport because it stood for something more. The general theme seemed to be this: Lysacek skated more fluently and with fewer mistakes. But Plushenko landed the quadruple jump, the toughest jump in the world, something Lysacek did not try to do.
And so, the large question: What is more important, stretching for perfection or pushing the envelope? People disagree furiously. It would be something to see them go at it again. Both men want it to happen.
But it looks less and less likely. Lysacek has been battling injuries and admits he is not sure when he can compete again. “It is frustrating,” he says. Plushenko, who obviously wants to perform for his home country, says he is training twice a day. But he has not competed in almost a year. Both insist they still hope to meet in Sochi.
3. Bode Miller is back to ski down some mountains at the Olympics. Whoa, it seems like he goes all the way back to Innsbruck. Not quite, but this will be his fifth Olympics. He is as passionate and interesting as ever. “I’m not hard to figure out,” he says, which even as a quote is sort of hard to figure out.
4. The U.S.-Russia rivalry should be in full force right away at the team figure skating competition before even the Opening Ceremony.
5. The U.S.-Canada rivalry should be in full force throughout, starting with team figure skating and ending, potentially, with the men’s hockey final on the last day. The 2010 gold medal hockey game between the U.S. and Canada -- Canada won in overtime -- was one of the great events in Olympic history.
6. American speed skater Shani Davis looks to win his third straight Olympic gold medal in the 1000m. He’s already the first ever to win the event two Olympics in a row.
7. American Seth Wescott -- now 37 years old -- won the first two men’s snowboard crosses in Olympic history. This is especially impressive when you consider the randomness of the event. Wescott, in his Torino and Vancouver victories, was among four snowboarders all starting at the same time and racing through. For Sochi, it'll be six per race. It’s NASCAR on snow. Wescott, recovering from April knee surgery, hopes to return for a run at a third gold.
Embedded video_content_type: Wescott wins SBX gold in Vancouver
8. Eighteen-year-old Mikaela Shiffrin is primed to become the breakout American star at these Olympics. Last season, she became the first American in nearly three decades to win the World Cup season title in women's slalom.
9. Shaun White is no longer the amazing Flying Tomato that he was in 2006 when he wowed the world with his remarkable jumps and tricks in the halfpipe. He’s also not the man who repeated for gold in 2010. He’s 27 now. He looks different. He has been dealing with the wonder and pitfalls of fame for some time now. He will try to win two golds in Sochi -- halfpipe and slopestyle -- and is promising something to remember.
10. Meryl Davis and Charlie White might go in as America’s best bet to win gold. They are ice dancers and they won world championships in 2011 and 2013. The United States, remarkably, has never won an ice dancing gold. Davis and White took silver in 2010 -- it was only the third time an American ice dancing pair had earned an Olympic medal.
11. One more: The Lolo Jones story always fascinates. She has been pursuing an Olympic medal for five years now. She came to the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing as a favorite to win the 100m hurdles, but she clipped a hurdle and finished out of the medal running. She tried again in 2012 and finished a tantalizingly close fourth, just one tenth of a second behind her teammate, Kellie Wells.
And so, she returns -- this time as a bobsled brakeman. Just this week she made the U.S. bobsled team for the World Cup, though she will still need to compete for her place in Sochi.
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Bode Miller on how he views the competition: “I really feel it’s me against the mountain. I really feel like it’s me against myself.”
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One thing about the Olympics is this: It always seems to sneak up on everyone. We’re 100 days out, which means it will probably be about 95 days before people really start paying attention. Sure, there has been quite a lot of talk about Sochi -- politics, controversies, the LGBT rights issue in Russia -- but very little about the athletes or events. That tends to be how it goes. People don’t think about the Olympics until they are upon us.
It was really a bobsledder named Justin Olsen who got my blood pumping early for the Winter Olympics. In 2010, Olsen was part of the first American four-man bobsled team to win an Olympic gold medal in 62 years. Olsen is a Texan through and through -- born in Lubbock, grew up in San Antonio. He went to the Air Force Academy and he’s very funny when talking about how a Texan ends up pushing and riding in a bobsled.
Embedded video_content_type: Holcomb leads U.S. 'Night Train' to gold in Vancouver
But he’s remarkable talking about the feeling of winning that gold medal. He admits that he didn’t really see anything during the run itself -- you never do in the back of a bobsled. The pilot was Steven Holcomb, the other two were Steve Mesler and Curtis Tomasevicz, and Olsen had learned to just trust them all to do their jobs. He remembered the feeling of the darkness as the sled raced through. He felt like they were going fast. He felt like they were going to win gold.
And at the end, he looked for the clock. He looked for the time. When he saw it, saw that his team was going to win a gold medal, he tried to get out of the sled as fast as he could so he could celebrate. All he could think of was how much he wanted to celebrate, wanted to share the moment with his teammates. He wanted to remember every single detail. But he said it turned into a blur. The joy, he said, was bigger than he had ever expected. It wasn’t just joy. It was emotion after emotion crashing over him. So much training. So much sacrifice. So much drudgery. So much pain. So much everything. All for this moment.
“I felt,” he would say, “like a child. It’s like, you can’t scream loud enough. It’s like you can’t do enough to get it out.”
Joe Posnanski is the national columnist for NBC Sports and a special contributor to NBCOlympics.com. Follow him on Twitter @JPosnanski
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