Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Closing Thoughts

The Olympics have been over for more than a week...And it seems much longer, seeing as how Russia just invaded Ukraine and seized Crimea as its own...But since I did quite a bit of opining about the Olymics while they were happening, part of me feels like it would be an incomplete effort if I didn't share a few final observations about them before moving on to weightier topics.

The Medal Count
The United States finished at #2 in the medical count and with our second-highest tally of all time. Despite a dismal showing in some sports at which we are usually good (speedskating, figure skating) and despite seeing our highest profile gold medal favorite (Shaun White) finish with no medals at all.

It's hard to complain about that, especially when we were once a bit of a non-factor in the winter games, and when you consider that we earned multiple medals in the "sliding sports" (bobsled, luge, skeleton) that have traditionally been a major weakness. I am competitive by nature and have a hard time not thinking about what might have been, but I know I am largely wrong to think that way.

Hockey - U.S.
There is never any shame in losing to Canada, especially when the margin is only one goal, nor is there any shame in losing to Finland. One of those nations is the game's birthplace and continues to produce a plurality of NHL players, while the other is a wellspring of talent that has churned out such luminaries as Teemu Selanne, Esa Tikkanen, and Jari Kurri.

Of course, now it is time for the but, for there is shame in ending the Olympic tournament not merely by losing to Canada and Finland, but by failing to score a single goal against either of them. Especially when you enter the semifinals red hot and playing like a juggernaut, and especially after you go undefeated in the preliminary round and crush the Czechs in the quarterfinal.

In the end, Team Canada and Team Finland were simply better than Team USA, but the way Team USA finished out of the medals -- more so than the fact it finished out of them -- will gnaw at our players for a while.

But hey...
...at least our men's team didn't go down the way our women's team did. It is brutal to blow a two-goal lead in the last four minutes against anybody. It is soul-crushing to do it against your arch nemesis, when the sole reason many of your players returned to the Olympics this year was to beat that nemesis.

For our women, it would have been better to win no medal at all than to "win" silver yet again and fall to Canada yet again. I guarantee you that every time one of our women looks at her 2014 silver medal, she will look at is as a symbol of her biggest failure. That sucks, and that might not be fair, but that is reality; and if it ever ceases to be reality, it will mean that competitiveness (and therefore excellence) have ceased to exist.

Hockey - International
American hockey is light years ahead of where it was when the Miracle On Ice took place. In the 34 years since then, U.S.-born players have won multiple Conn Smythes and multiple Vezinas and had their names engraved on Lord Stanley's Cup in numbers that were once unimaginable. It was not until 15 years after the miracle that Joe Mullen became the first American to reach the 1,000-point mark, and now seven more have joined him.

Yet in all this time, Team USA has won only two medals and neither of them were gold, and that says a lot about the quality of depth in international play.

Something else that says a lot about that quality of depth is this: Russia has not appeared in a gold medal game since five Olympics ago, and lost that one.

Something else which says a lot is that whenever the Olympics are held, at least one of hockey's "second tier" nations always puts dents in the "big seven" nations. Belarus shocking Sweden in Salt Lake is the most famous example, but Slovenia upending Slovakia this year was noteworthy, as was Switzerland blanking the Czechs.

Still, perhaps the main takeaway from Sochi is this: Anyone who ever doubted that Canada is king of the hockey hill should be averting their eyes. I remember a time, two decades back, when some folks fretted that the influx of non-Canadian talent into the NHL suggested that Canada was losing its game; when people were unhappy about Scotty Bowman fielding an all-Russian line for the Red Wings; when people squinted about the "Yank Owns The Canucks" symbolism of a Seattle businessman buying a controlling interest in Vancouver's hockey club.

Over the last couple weeks, however, Team Canada marched through the Olympics not only without losing a game, but without ever trailing in a game. After medaling just once in the first three Olympics that included NHL'ers, Team Canada has won two straight gold; and although Finland has won more medals than Canada during this era, all of Canada's have been gold compared to none of Finland's.

Where from here?
The next Winter Olympics will return to the Far East for the first time in two decades. Exactly 20 years after Nagano, Japan hosted the games in 1998, Pyeongchang, South Korea will host them in 2018. This will mark a kind of "return to roots" because Pyeongchang, unlike the last two hosts, is a smallish city with frigid winters. Its population is roughly 8 percent of Vancouver's and its February temperatures average 30 degrees colder than Sochi's.

For those reasons, I love the choice. A lot is riding on Pyeongchang, because how well it does will go a long way toward determining whether traditional sites such as itself get chosen on into the future. I, for one, hope it does a helluva job.

When it comes to 2022, however, you might want to cringe. Neither the U.S. nor Canada is placing a bid. Meanwhile, Munich and Saint Moritz declined to bid and Stockholm surprised everyone by withdrawing its name from consideration.

For Europe, that leaves Oslo and Krakow. The former sounds perfect, except for the fact that most Norwegians are not supportive of the bid. As for the latter, I find it to be especially intriguing because Poland has never hosted an Olympics, and doing so would do a great deal of good for that tough but often put-open nation; however, the dearth of ski resorts in Poland leaves the Krakow bid in the awkward position of suggesting that a spot in an entirely different country (Slovakia) be the site of its snow events, and I doubt that will fly with the Olympic Committee.

Technically, there is a third potential European host submitting a bid, but I don't think Lviv, Ukraine has much of a chance since that country is in the throes of revolution by its own citizens (good, but not stable) and invasion by Russia (bad).

That leaves us with two non-European bids. One is from Almaty, Kazakhstan and the other from Beijing, China. The first is Borat's country. It is pretty, but third-world and populated by lots of nomads. The second city recentlty staged a Summer Olympics so why go back there so soon? Plus, it is home to one of the most repressive regimes on Earth and that has gotta count against you sometime.

So it's all yours Oslo, whether your citizens want it or not!

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