Winter Olympics: Warming to America’s Game and beyond

I know how galling this all must be, hearing about the big North American freeze and the tremors of polar madness it’s firing across the ocean to stir things up around your way.

Winter Olympics: Warming to America’s Game and beyond

If you never see another Instagram photo or Facebook update of a weather phone app showing you just how insanely cold it is in Boston or Chicago, you won’t be sorry. It’s winter, they should all get over themselves.

In spite of all the ludicrous news reports hurried out over the last few days by local crews who can’t blink for fear of never being able to see their loved ones again, comparing soft snow to crunchy snow and telling the camera that it feels like minus 40, whatever that means, I never tire of talking about the cold.

On Sunday night, I marvelled with about 53 million other television viewers as the Green Bay Packers shattered on their own tundra against the San Francisco 49ers, an old school NFL game for mad men.

It was 16 degrees under on the celsius scale but who knows how it really felt to stand there and watch your team lose like that, frustrated and impotent, picked apart by cold-hearted opposing quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

The frozen turf was an odd shade of brown, battered from the tarp covers and undersoil heating that tried to salvage something from the dead of winter in the days leading up to an event that everyone thought would be even colder. Although, at those depths, when blinking and breathing hurts, it begins to stop mattering.

Stuck indoors in New York with hot whiskey and Netflix to avoid the intense conditions, at least it’s not as bad as it is in Illinois, Indiana and Minnesota. But it’s fascinating. And when’s summer? No wonder the NFL has sole ownership over January. 53 millions viewers for a wild-card game — we haven’t even reached the meat of the play-offs yet.

And the suits on Park Avenue want to add another knockout game in each conference. More of everything to go with it, advertising, merchandise and cheap beer.

No one is outdoors unless they live in Florida or Southern California, so why wouldn’t you gorge on football? And in Southern California, for the first time in years, they have the San Diego Chargers somehow actually achieving something comparative with the talent available to them.

But the Super Bowl isn’t the only glimmer at the end of this brutal tunnel. In less than a month, the Winter Olympics in Sochi will dominate American discourse.

Of course, this is an event which is known simply as the Olympics here. It takes time to get used to that — there’s no hierarchy whatsoever; summer and winter co-exist equally. The Games take place this year in Russia and in two years, Brazil will be the hosts.

The Olympics fit into every national treasure cliche. One of the most watched morning shows in the most coveted advertising slot in the US, NBC’s ‘Today’ show, was given an early Tuesday Olympics scoop just as Central Park broke a 118-year old record for freezing temperatures of roughly -16C.

Ski champion Lindsey Vonn, the long-predicted darling of these Games in Sochi, finally succumbed to a string of knee injury setbacks and admitted that she wouldn’t feature next month.

But of course there are the deeper geo- and sociopolitical issues which trouble the US even more.

The two bombings in Volgograd, which killed 34 people in suicide attacks, have grabbed the attention of the US team while the chief executive of the US Olympic Committee, Scott Blackmun, admitted he was “concerned”.

Ironically, the massive security operation which the Russian government has had in place is a rare source of common values with their US counterparts and the Russians are almost comically open about how invasive their national security operation will be: like it or not, star athletes, every communication device you bring with you to Sochi will be subject to blanket probing.

It will be also be interesting to watch how US athletes (as well as the athletes from other nations) choose to voice their opinions on the questionable Russian government attitudes towards human rights and gay rights.

The White House will be delivering a strong message of opposition to Russia’s anti-gay laws by sending an opening ceremony delegation that will include openly gay sports personalities including tennis great Billie Jean King and ice hockey player Caitlin Cahow. For the first time in 14 years, they won’t be sending the president, the first lady or the vice-president.

All well and good, but when the US tunes in on February 7 for the most expensive Olympics of all time, the biggest concern will be predicted mild temperatures. If the mountain snow falls short of expectation, there will many a cold shoulder in the US.

* Twitter: JohnWRiordan

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