Monday, February 15, 2010

Nordic Combined

Our second day of Olympic competition began with (surprise surprise) uncertain weather.   We decided not to push our luck by taking the boys out to Whistler Olympic Park for the Nordic Combined, and event which promised to last much of the day.

So Lisa took one for the team and spent the day with Miles and Leo in the Village, while Daddy insisted on braving the elements to attend the competition.

Fortunately, there was no shortage of takers for our extra tickets.   Already at the shuttle bus stop, crowds of nordic maniacs were assembling in their national garb, evoking varied visions of glorious pasts and presents.   The sizeable Norwegian contingent, naturally, played on the Viking angle.


The Germans, however, had to be sensitive about their historical references.   They carefully avoided stirring up unpleasant feelings about the World War II.   Instead, their costumes invoked warm, fuzzy memories of the First World War.

We felt a little left out, having left our Uncle Sam outfits back at the Village.


In any event, the flags of many a snowbound nation were represented at the ski jumping center, including, as we would soon find out, our own.


Lest our readers imagine that we had come merely to witness a reprise of the previous day's ski jumping, let us briefly explain what was happening.   The Nordic Combined is essentially the decathlon of the Winter Games, albeit with two events, rather than ten.  

If that sounds too easy, consider that you first have to be willing to fling yourself off the ski jumping hill, which generally restricts participation to the insane, the suicidal, and the suicidally insane.  Then, this is followed by a 10k cross-country ski race, which, performed at a sprint speed, is usually enough to make a normal person cough out his or her lungs.


This is precisely the sort of sport you'd expect to be dominated by aquavit-soaked Scandinavian manic depressives.  Guys who got kicked off of both the ski jumping team and the cross-country team, until they figured out that you could put the two sports together, like chocolate and peanut butter, and somehow be a champion, or at least a best-selling candy bar.

So imagine our surprise when we found out that the U.S. team (definite also-rans in ski jumping and cross-country skiing) was somehow in contention in Nordic Combined.   Not just one contender, but four legitimate medal hopes.   The flag-waving Finns who surrounded us at the stadium knew all of our guys' names -- Todd Lodwick, Johnny Spillane, Bill Demong, Brett Camerota -- and their strengths and weaknesses as well as if they'd spent the winter sleeping on their sofas (which, for all we knew, they actually did).   

When Lodwick and Spillane came out of the ski jumping half of the competition in the top 5, we felt an unexpected stirring of passion for a sport to which, it is safe to say, none of us had previously given a moment's thought.   Still, we had little notion of the breakthrough that the U.S. team would achieve in the coming hours and days.

Before we could find out, we had to make our way to the cross-country ski stadium.   Along the way, the skies briefly opened up and make us grateful for our Gore-tex.
Fortunately, there plenty of room in the "hospitality tent" to ride out the storm, and stiffen our resolve with beer and bratwurst.


By the time the race rolled around, however, the weather had taken a turn for the better.  Once again, we were surrounded by a phalanx of Finnish fans.   Although their man led after the jumping, they assured us with appropriate Northern gloom that he would surely fade in the cross-country race. 

I'd never seen a cross-country ski race in person, and what I'd previously seen on television did not suggest a spellbinding experience.   Well, I was in for a pleasant surprise.   The genius of the Nordic Combined is the "Gunderson start" (named, of course, for its Norse inventor).  Instead of a time trial (in which each skier races against the clock), the competitors are ranked by their ski jumps and given a head start in the ski race based on their score.   The upshot is that everyone competes in real time, and the first one across the finish line wins.  Which makes for an exciting race ... if it's close.


I also wondered how much of the race we would be able to see from our seats in the stadium.  Quite a bit, it turned out.   The racers completed 4 circuits of 2.5 km, each one of which ended with a loop through the stadium.  Even when the leaders were not in the stadium, they were usually visible on nearby trails (or at least on the big-screen TV).

It turned out to be an insanely close race.  With each loop through the stadium, the excitement built, even for the flag-waving Finns and nervous Norwegians who watched their historically favored racers fall behind some unexpected upstarts.   Lodwick and Spillane led for most of the third and fourth laps, while Demong made up a huge gap (1:20) to join the lead pack.  

After catching a determined breakaway by the Japanese skier Kobayashi, Spillane took a solid lead into the final turn down into the stadium.   But the Frenchman Jason Lamy-Chappuis made a mad all-out charge, picking up just an inch or two with each stroke on the final lap, and edged Spillane for gold at the last second by half the length of a ski.  Still, Spillane's silver was the first American medal of any kind in Nordic Combined, and only the second ever in any nordic sport. Of course, the crowd went wild.   I'm hard pressed to think of a more exciting sporting event that I've ever seen in person.

Post-script:  With Lodwick in 4th and Demong in 6th, the U.S. team was well-positioned to win the Nordic Combined relay a week later.  Once again, however, they were caught on the final stadium lap and edged by the Austrians for gold.   But two days later, in the large hill event, Demong and Spillane took gold and silver and completed a remarkable performance for the U.S. team in this most unlikely of sports.

Now, Daddy thinks he's found the perfect sport for Miles and Leo.  After all, we have a medal tradition to uphold.... 



No comments: