Mortal Combat: Risk in the Winter Olympics

The Closing Ceremonies of the 2010 XXI Winter Olympic Games have now concluded, and the electronic comedown commences. After seventeen days of continuous athletic spectacle, the late nights and little sleep, now there’s finally time to reflect on the thing, on what it all meant, on what it was choreographed to mean, as well as on what it has meant historically, and might yet come to mean—not just for Canada, but for the world.

For a start, it’s important to admit that the Closing Ceremonies are the less serious cousin, the satyr play as it were, to the more serious, and ponderous, Opening Ceremonies (much as the Winter Games play the less serious cousin to the Summer contests). And at this less serious ceremony closing the less serious Winter Games “[t]here were,” the Canadian Press cheerfully noted, “marching Mounties in mini-skirts. Table-top hockey players… Dancing canoes, red-clad lumberjacks and giant inflatable beavers.” One of the event’s big numbers, sung in French and English, was “Let’s Have a Party”—and the gods know these athletes have earned one. We all have. That the party commenced under a glorious full moon seemed fitting.

I’ve reflected several times on this site about the ritual and religious meaning of the Modern Olympic Games; games Pierre de Coubertin insisted were intended to serve as a new kind of religion, better suited to the more pluralistic modern world, and its eminently more cosmopolitan ethical impulses. The religio athletae, he called it.

And he placed special emphasis on the importance of the ritual frame provided for these Games, rituals that were the essential component that served to separate these Games from other World Championships. The ritual, and the explicit (if subterranean) religiosity, make these Games something more than—something other than—mere world championships. They elevate the athletes; they elevate all of us.

The Games commenced with tragedy, the death on a practice run of a Georgian luge athlete, Nodar Kumaritashvili. At the time, I suggested that these Modern Games are choreographed, very much like their Greek predecessors, to invite us to ponder over the extent and the meaning of risk.

Rituals are risky; the more complicated the ritual, the greater the risk of failure. At the Opening Ceremonies in Vancouver, the fourth arm of the Olympic torch suffered a mechanical problem, and thus the whole thing began not just with risk, but with a failure. This has all happened before at the Olympics, many times.

The riskiness of modern athletics was the most obvious component of these, and really of all, Olympic festivals. People who are expected to be dominant in their events either find a way to confirm their preeminence, or suffer the curse of having farther to fall. A South Korean figure skater rose to that challenge; US skier Bode Miller also did so, winning the gold four years after failing so dramatically in Turin. A Canadian hockey team was taken to overtime by its southern neighbor, but eventually won its Olympic eminence just before the Closing Ceremonies began.

But the ultimate sacrifice of an athlete before the Games began called these risks especially to mind. Other examples followed in short order; they always do. In an almost unimaginable act of concentration and courage, a Canadian figure skater competed just days after the unexpected death of her mother, holding it together for each routine, then immediately releasing the tears she must have on-call in such a time.

An earthquake of stunning intensity hit Chile at the tail end of these Games, making it impossible for the Chilean contingent to return to their damaged airport. Thus they too remained for the Closing Ceremonies last night, if far from festive in mood.

The risk of holding Winter Games so late in the season, and in such a temperate marine climate proved to be greater than anticipated; the weather was perfect for spectating, but terrible for winter sports.

And on it went. The greater the aspiration, the greater the risk of failure. The larger the stage, the more poignant the ritual drama that unfolds, failures and all.

In my first post prior to the outset of these Games, I tried to connect the Georgian luge athlete’s demise to the Greek ideals that birthed the ancient Games and inspired their Modern revival.

On the face of it, that may seem a forced connection. The Winter Games seem hardly Greek at all. Modern Greece has never won a medal of any kind at the Winter Olympics; the country scarcely sends any athletes to these Games. The Winter Olympics are too cold, and display athletes who, for all of their virtuosity, are too heavily clad to be Hellenic.

‘Gymnasium’ was a Greek word meaning “the naked place,” and in ancient Greece, athleticism was intimately linked both to eroticism and to the frank appreciation of human beauty. That’s all harder to get to on a snow-covered slope littered with athletes and pilgrims in baggies and puffy, insulated jackets with goggles or helmets hiding the eyes.

But it is easy to forget, if all we do is watch the television, that Winter sports mimic the work of war more subtly, but every bit as sincerely, as the Summer Games do. The Biathlon is the only event that still utilizes actual weapons, but the exaggerated indulgence in high-speed, high-risk activities offers more than a subtle glimpse into the deeper connections the Greeks perceived between the work of sport and the work of war. Injuries and high-profile crashes were a major aspect of these Vancouver Games. Pain, suffering, and death cast a long shadow at this level. Winter sports are at last as dangerous as their summer counterparts, and probably more so.

It is easy to forget that Sam Sullivan (then-mayor of Vancouver) who took up the Olympic flag at Turin in 2006, was rendered paraplegic after a skiing accident, and actually engineered a special chair in order to be able to wave the Canadian flag after he received it.

Neil Young, a brain aneurysm survivor, reminded us of this as he sang at the ceremonies; Parkinson’s sufferer Michael J. Fox’s brief appearance underlined the matter with special poignancy, as did reminders that the Special Olympics will commence in a few short weeks. We are fragile and vulnerable creatures; we are also mortal. We seem to take risks, many of us, equal to our fragility; this is the bodily poetry in which we engage at our Games. Our ferocious competitiveness, as well as our remarkable capacity for graciousness with one another, derive their deeper meaning from these facts.

Sport is risk; sport is dangerous. Sport rides that ritualized razor’s edge between comedy and tragedy.

The ancient Greeks were much drawn to athletics for these precise reasons. Many have noted the essential “co-birth” of democracy, tragedy, philosophy and athleticism in sunny old Athens during its Classical heyday. What in the world do such things have in common? A fascination with risk, for starters, and a saddened admission of the realities of fragility and of loss.

The Greeks viewed this large matter of risk and finitude with great moral seriousness and careful attention (I personally believe this is one reason that the Modern Greeks do not compete very much in these winter snow-and-ice contests—too much risk).

Risk means the very real risk of accident, disaster, wounding, and death. This seems to be the part of the thing that many North Americans have a hard time wrapping their minds or hearts around.

We like our risk neat.

In films, we like the risk of harm averted at the last possible moment. We want ever-greater speed on the ice chutes, but fewer crashes. We want ever-higher platforms, more tricks and rotations, but we don’t want anyone to get hurt. We want “extreme sports” but we want them safe. We imagine ever-riskier and ever-more intrusive surgical procedures, but we seem surprised and morally outraged if they fail. Then we sue.

It’s all upside-down. Wall Streeters have even convinced themselves that capitalism is an economic system that is grounded in the frank admission of risk and failure. But we have very little actual stomach for failure, at least at the top of the social pyramid. “The Sure Thing,” a recent exposée in the New Yorker by Malcolm Gladwell, shows how true capitalist maestros are actually extremely risk-adverse. They demonstrate their fiscal virtuosity by finding “sure things” others have missed. They are decidedly not risk-takers.

Our largest banks and corporations were recently deemed “too large to fail.” No risk there. Which means that the people we believe to be risk takers are in fact risk-averse. We exaggerate the riskiness of Wall Street, underestimate it at the Olympics, then become confused about the appropriate response when confronted with real crises or failures in both arenas. Perhaps we have grown too comfortable with the idea that “failure is not an option,” as wars and deep recessions linger, and as the planet’s dynamic tectonic systems continue to shudder us into a new watchfulness. And perhaps an awakening. “Failure is not an option”: no ancient Greek, convinced of the jealousy of the gods, would ever have made such a claim. Nor do the most wizened Olympians among us.

So the Winter Games concluded under a brilliant moon, inviting us to look ahead, to the 2012 Summer Games in Britain, and the 2014 Winter Games in Russia. Both of these nations know the staggering risks, and the staggering losses, that can coexist with the possibilities of eventual success, in war and in peace. It will be interesting to see what their Olympic rituals will be designed to say.

The word before these Games began is still the word now: sacrifice. We have witnessed extraordinary sacrifices over the past two and a half weeks. Hundreds of them. And we were invited to permit ourselves be moved by them. It is a risk to be so moved. But the social dangers of the inability, or the refusal, to be so moved are acute. This, the Greeks also knew. This is what they tried to ritualize every four years in the summer, at Olympia, dedicating the lesson to their god.

We still gather to enact our version of the lesson, albeit imperfectly, every two years now, in cold weather and warm alike.