With sad attendance, Olympic energy isn't the same
Posted: Tuesday February 21, 2006 5:51PM; Updated: Tuesday February 21, 2006 5:51PM
That few have come to see her perform isn't lost on heroic U.S. skier Lindsey Kildow.
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TURIN, Italy -- I like the Olympic Games as much as the next guy, as long as that guy isn't Sports Illustrated rings guru Brian Cazeneuve, who loves the Olympics more than anyone since Baron de Coubertin himself. I have no desire to see the Olympics -- in particular the Winter Olympics -- perish from the quadrennial sports calendar for lack of interest. But I will admit to some worry.
For the 2006 Games, I have been covering alpine skiing in the high mountains 70 miles outside of Turin. As I write this, seven of the 10 events have been completed and only once has the temporary seating at the any of the ski venues been filled to capacity. Only three times has it been close. The only full house was during Austrian Benni Raich's victory on Monday in the men's giant slalom, a terrific event contested in brilliant sunshine after a massive snow fall for the previous three days that turned the resort of Sestriere in a snow globe.
After finishing seventh in the women's super-G, also on Monday, U.S. skier Lindsey Kildow said, "I don't really feel like anyone cares that it's the Olympics. It doesn't seem like there are a lot of people here. I don't know ... It doesn't feel like the Olympics. Maybe it's just me, but I don't feel the excitement.''
Lindsey, it's not just you. I wouldn't say that I don't feel the excitement. At the start of Olympic ski races, there is a palpable tension that's rare in sport, because of the one-shot nature of the sport and margins of victory, which are hundredths of a second. In my mind, the jingly nerves that I feel when skiers push out of the start house is similar to what I feel in the opening seconds of a heavyweight fight or at the Kentucky Derby. It all happens fast, and nothing can diminish that feel.
But it's cool when a roaring crowd augments that feel. There have been few roaring crowds at Olympic alpine skiing. (Because of the frequency of skiing events, I have attended only two other Olympic medal events: women's skeleton and women's two-man bobsled. There were far fewer spectators at skeleton than competitors and media combined and a respectable crowd at bobsled. My media brethren have assured me that empty seats are common at these Games, even at marquee events like the men's figure skating short program and -- gasp -- snowboarding).
On the night of Feb. 14, when 21-year-old U.S. skier Ted Ligety won his gold medal in the alpine combined competition (comprising one run of downhill and two runs of slalom), the stands were far less than half full for his second run of slalom. This was on a hill that is literally at the bottom of the main street in Sestriere, in an event where Italian Giorgio Rocca was expected to be a medal contender. And the combined, while something of a hybrid on paper, is a terrific show in person. It unfolds piece-by-piece over the course of a day, and spectators can see the entire slalom run with their naked eyes. Yet the audience for Ligety's victory was roughly akin to a modest high school football game.
Afterward, U.S. head coach Phil McNichol was asked if he was impressed with Ligety's ability to handle the pressure of the moment. His response was almost disdainful.
"Ted has clearly showed that he can handle pressure on the World Cup,'' McNichol said, and then he lifted his chin toward the stands. "And that's with 10 times as many people watching as here. Even though the Olympics are the Olympics.''
At the start of the men's downhill, the first -- and premiere -- alpine event of the Games, the stands were half full. They were nearly filled by the end of the competition, but even then the spectators were nearly mute. Day after day this scene was repeated. The women's downhill, in which Austria's MichaelaDorfmeister won the first gold medal of her long career, drew an embarrassingly sparse audience. You get the idea.
Let's focus for now on alpine skiing. There are a couple of possible explanations for the small live crowds. Tickets for ski races are priced at $36 and $120, which is not inexpensive for an event that is viewed to a great extent on a giant screen placed at the bottom of the hill. It is also not inexpensive when spectators are bused miles and miles, only to stand in long, inefficient security lines. Anecdotes are rampant about locals and tourists who purchased skiing tickets, went once and vowed never to return because of the inconvenience.
This same explanation would apply to almost any of the mountain venues: skiing, biathlon, cross-country skiing, freestyle skiing. Snowboarding is also in the mountains, but by virtue of its location near a highway and a train station and on the cultural zeitgeist apparently is immune from fan ambivalence. (Although not every snowboard event was sold out).
I can wring my hands over the lack of uniformly huge live crowds, but it's not really an issue. I have checked with the folks at home and NBC is not broadcasting images of empty seats. Nor would I if I were Dick Ebersol.
In essence, the Olympic Games are a television show. Not just in the United States, but in every nation with a rights-holding network. Live spectators are window dressing and at events like alpine skiing, television cameras can find and frame small pockets of humanity and make 1,000 bodies look like 100,000.
The Olympics project a sense of enormity and importance that borders on desperation, in the athletic sense. Big crowds accentuate this feeling. I am presently sitting at my desk (my table, actually) in the Olympic media center in Sestriere. As I write a television behind me is tuned to a hockey game, with a boisterous audience. Earlier, that same television was showing figure skating, also with a large crowd. The effect was energizing.
Without that energy, the Games project an entirely different desperation. As if nobody cares.