Until recent events in Salt Lake City, I thought a half-pipe was
the nicotine-delivery system my ancestors used back in the ould sod. Ach, they
were so poor they had to settle for a scrawny little half-pipe while the lords
and their ladies sat around tables groaning with fine meats and exotic wines
while they sucked on full pipes overflowing with imported tobbacky.
Who knew that a half-pipe is
not, in fact, a relic of Old World poverty, but an actual competitive
sport-indeed, a sport bearing the
coveted imprimatur of the august
International Olympic Committee? This news came as a surprise to your dutiful
correspondent, who always assumed that all those slackers with snowboards were
just having a little fun and not actually training for the day when Bob Costas
would interview them in front of a fake fire at the (trumpets, please) “Olympic
Winter Games on NBC.”
I would not presume to judge the Olympian worthiness of
half-pipers, who seem, in any case, like a nice bunch of young men and women.
It is curious, however, that this made-for-cable-television event whose
paternity can be traced to malls in suburban America now takes its place alongside
ski-jumping, ice hockey and figure-skating as a recognized Olympic sport.
Equally curious, in a way that would seem to rule out coincidence, is the
American dominance of the seemingly endless half-pipe events. Many things may
be said about the United States (just read the European newspapers), but few
have ever accused this nation of being a winter-sport powerhouse. We do the
high jump, not the ski jump. Our medal totals at the Winter Games generally put
us in the middle of the pack, alongside the Poles, the Dutch and the
Now, if you’re, say, Jack
Welch, and you were the head of the gigantic corporation that spent hundreds of
millions of dollars to televise the Olympic Games, would you be content to see
the Finns and the Norwegians and the Swiss piling up the gold, silver and
bronze? Would it not worry you that those hundreds of millions of dollars,
which could have been used to clean up the Hudson River, might be wasted if
American television viewers decided that an Olympic Games dominated by blond
cross-country skiers and Teutonic luge teams just can’t compete with a rerun of
Who Wants to Be a Millionaire ?
Of course, Mr. Welch no longer heads General Electric, having
been promoted to the ranks of the Great American Authors Who Have Laid Off
Thousands and Lived to Laugh About It. But the mega-Olympic deal was done under
his watch, and his successors are left with the tab. And you can be pretty sure
that the thought of broadcasts
dominated by the 4-by-7.5-kilometer relay in the women’s biathlon scared the
Nielsens out of them.
And so we have the half-pipe, an all-American, demographically
correct ratings builder-just like short-track speed skating (a Winter Games
version of roller derby) and hot-dog mogul skiing. The I.O.C. took Yankee dollars
and then gave its white-gloved thumbs-up to a junk sport the Yanks could claim
as their own, just as the Scandinavians own the aptly named Nordic events. You
may think that’s a little too conspiratorial, but then again, so is the notion
that you can bribe a few I.O.C. members to get them to pick your city to host
the Games. Ah, but all that’s forgotten now, what with the U.S. taking home
bushels of medals and threatening the Germans for first place in the medal
It may be truly stated that I
cannot do whatever it is that a half-piper does, and therefore should not speak
so disparagingly of the half-pipe’s practitioners. Yes, but rather than leap
around on a snowboard for no apparent reason, I practice a form of journalism
known as newspaper writing. And while newspaper writing is not yet an Olympic
event-and if you think the figure-skating judges are a rough crowd, you ought
to meet the Pulitzer Prize gang-there is never any shortage of
non-practitioners who are more than happy to disparage my admittedly
pathetic efforts, and that doesn’t even
include close relatives.
Being old enough to remember Franz Klammer, Jean-Claude Killy and
Peggy Fleming, I suppose I’m just too grouchy to appreciate the new, like,
way-cool Olympic Games. Give me something with sweat and blood, with grim
determination, with frozen snot hanging from the beards of exhausted men and
East German women. Give me some real sports.
Yes, give me curling!
* * *
Speaking of being old, in this space last week I confused Frank
Cashen, the former general manager of the New York Mets, with Fred Wilpon, Mr.
Cashen’s onetime boss and the team’s co-owner.