Column: Figuring out Sochi

Sports Editor Mike Smith might not know how all these Winter Olympic sports work, but he’s rooting on the USA every step of the way. Photo courtesy

Sports Editor Mike Smith might not know how all these Winter Olympic sports work, but he’s rooting on the USA every step of the way. Photo courtesy

I’ll be dead honest; when it comes to watching most events in the Winter Olympics, I’m clueless.

Now, it’s not that I don’t get the main gist of what’s going on. I think I understand the basics. In speed skating, luge, and other race-type events, the object is to get the best time. In slope-style and half-pipe, it’s a combination of a routine’s difficulty and the snowboarder’s ability to pull it off that makes the winner, and in figure-skating—at least to the best of my knowledge—the gold medals go to the country that is best able to pay-off the international judges.

But it’s the intricacies of the events that elude me; even if I understand the task at hand. And I’m certainly not alone.

For many American sports fans who don’t see these types of events on television very often, the nuances of Olympic sports are foreign concepts.

On Saturday afternoon, a group of friends and I sat in a ski lodge in Killington, Vt., fresh off our own annual winter Olympics in which the gold medalist is determined by the skier or snowboarder with the least bumps, bruises or broken bones at the end of our weekend trip.

With coffees in hand, we settled in to watch the women’s short-program figure skating competition. With only a minimal knowledge of figure skating, gleaned mostly from the Will Ferrell vehicle “Blades of Glory,” we sat there watching the routines, unable to offer much in the way of ski lodge banter about what we were seeing other than when a skater made a visible gaffe, such as falling down. Of course, our resident bigmouth friend—every group has one, it seems—had no problem interjecting his own two cents into the proceedings, but was quickly silenced after a move that he called “flawless” was quickly discounted by commentator Tara Lipinski, who determined that the skater didn’t have enough rotations in the air for the jump to qualify.

But it’s not just figure skating; it’s a host of other events as well. And somehow, it doesn’t even seem to matter. I couldn’t tell you exactly what the athletes with the brooms are doing in curling, but that doesn’t stop me from plopping down on the couch and watching Canada’s finest hurling stones the length of an ice-rink in what looks like the most athletically challenging game of bar shuffle puck I’ve ever seen.

I’m not exactly sure about the ins-and-outs of cross-country skiing, but when I watch competitors cross the finish line and immediately collapse and sprawl on the snow, laboring to breathe like a bunch of Under-Armor clad beached whales, I’m pretty sure I’ve just watched a fairly intense athletic spectacle, one that I would never dare to attempt for fear of suffering a massive heart attack.

But NBC’s Olympic programmers are smart. They know the American public is always hungry for strong human interest stories, especially when they are out of their element in terms of actual sports narratives. This way, even if we don’t exactly know how our American bobsledders stack up against the rest of the world’s best—or even how they steer those death machines down the side of the mountain—we can rally around sports figures like Lolo Jones, who’s difficult childhood and previous track and field career make her a media darling, or men’s bobsledder Johnny Quinn, whose valiant struggle against Sochi’s unyielding bathroom doors have turned him into a Paul Bunyan-esque folk hero in the early goings of these games.

So, I can’t tell a triple sow cow from a lutz, or a McTwist from a fakie, but it doesn’t matter. When it comes to the Olympics, I’m all in, regardless of the sport. That said, if someone could get me a glossary of terms and maybe a rulebook or two, I’d be eternally grateful.

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About Mike Smith

Mike Smith has been with Hometown Media Group since 2007, serving as the company’s Sports Editor. Mike has been commended for his work by the New York Press Association, winning awards in 2008 for “Best Sports Feature” and again in 2009 as part of a team that put together “The Game,” a breakdown of the Harrison-Rye football rivalry, which won for “Best Special Section.” His weekly column, “Live Mike,” offers his unique insights into a broad range of topics in the sports world. He resides in Eastchester, N.Y. and spends most of his free time serving as the player-manager for a competitive men’s baseball team in New York City. Reach Mike at 914-653-1000 x22 or; follow him on Twitter @LiveMike_Sports.