Hey, Put This In Your Half-Pipe

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

Bulgarians.

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

standings.

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.