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Forget the Summer Games, the Winter Olympics are tops
It's a simple choice, really. The Winter and Summer Olympics share five rings, Bob Costas in the studio and not much else. If you like supersized, hypercommercialized spectacles in which any connection to the Olympic ideal is a distant memory, then the Summer Games are for you. If, like me, you think smaller is better, book a ticket to Salt Lake City.
Think of it this way: The Winter Olympics are contested entirely on snow and ice, a purity that blessedly constrains the Games. In recent years the IOC has made freestyle skiing and snowboarding part of the Games, commonsense additions that recognize a cultural wave. Short-track speed skating was added in 1992, taking an accepted sport and enlivening it. Skeleton returns this year after a 54-year absence. Beyond these tweaks the Winter Games are essentially what first unfolded in Chamonix in 1924, except swifter, higher and stronger.
The Summer Olympics are a hopelessly bloated affair. While the Nagano Games had 68 events and 2,077 athletes, the Sydney Games had 300 events and more than 11,000 athletes. Summer sports have been added at a dizzying rate. Synchronized swimming, rhythmic gymnastics, baseball, beach volleyball, mountain biking and triathlon have all been tacked on in the last 20 years.
The Winter Games are cross-country skiers flowing through snowy woods, downhillers screaming along a treacherous and icy course, and figure skaters bridging the gap between art and sport. They're a luger here, a biathlete there, a ski jumper soaring into the sky. They're large enough to be inspiring, yet small enough to be embraced.
Put the Winter Games in deep freeze, the Summer Olympics are hot
What I love about the Summer Games is that the marquee events connect us to the roots and essence of sport. Athletes contest their might. They see who can run or swim fastest, who can jump farthest or highest, who can shoulder the heaviest load. They wrestle and box. These are the same things kids do when they go outside to play. We could have seen those same contests on a dusty floor in Athens 2,800 years ago.
The sports at the Winter Games feel concocted and unnatural. People strap strange equipment to their feet and helmets onto their heads. One debate coming into the Salt Lake Games was about which metal alloys are allowed in skeleton runners. This isn't sports; this is a gear expo on steroids.
One of the nobler aspects of the Olympics is that they unite people of every class and ethnicity. Athletes from 199 countries went to Sydney two years ago. The Winter Games, meantime, are reserved for the few who live among high mountains and snow fields. Only 80 nations will compete in Salt Lake and entire continents (Africa, South America) will likely go medal-less.
O.K., the Summer Olympics have gotten a bit bloated, but the excess just means that coverage never gets old. You can watch a different sport each day. The Winter Games are about three sports—hockey, skating and skiing—and a lot