Winter sports are marginalized—rather neatly marginalized by hemisphere, of course, and then doubly marginalized by tastes. Where with the Summer Olympic Games, every four years some big town makes a claim, usually failed, to cosmopolitan importance—my shrinking, beautiful home town of Montreal is still burdened by its hideous Olympic Stadium, which helped to drive the Expos away—in the Winter Games, every four years some small resort town perks its head above the horizon. Television hosts try to look cozy in bulky sweaters, warming themselves beside fake, made-for-broadcast hearths, people talk about the fun they had and the friends they made, and then the place goes back to being a small resort town. As David Remnick has explained, Sochi was, before these games, more or less the Asbury Park, or even the Sea Bright, of the Soviet Union.
Yet those of us with a mind for winter—a love of the season—still find something romantic in these games, for they commemorate, however remotely, a central nineteenth-century Romantic theme: the discovery of the paradox of speed in winter. This gives a certain fascination to even the smaller winter sports. Basically, where the summer sports show all the varieties of human action—throwing, jumping, running, swimming, swimming the same way as someone else at the same time—the winter ones share a single theme: what can be made of gravity and frozen water together. Curling, luging, skiing; even hockey, the king of sports, depends on the physics of a sharp edge on ice. It’s a sliding festival that lasts two weeks.
The monotony of means should not blind us to the romance the sports superintend. As I said not long ago, in a series of lectures devoted to the subject of winter, in the nineteenth century, throughout Europe but in Russia above all, people discovered that the world could move faster in the cold months than in the summer. It was one of the most liberating physical discoveries ever made by modern people. While winter impedes comfort, it accelerates movement. Where mud and dust obscured the roads, and currents made the rivers slow going in Northern lands, the onset of winter ice turned them into corridors of speed. The acceleration of the Russian sled was so legendary in Europe that when Hector Berlioz saw it, in 1847, he was approximately as disappointed as were generations of European visitors were by Niagara Falls. (The second great disappointment of American married life, as Oscar Wilde said, in a still model one-liner.)
But those nineteenth-century skating and sledding Romantics saw the Winter Olympic disciplines as anything other than social activities. They saw them as soulful ones, escapes into solitude—a kind of meditation aid, a way of casting off social lies for the truth of the man alone in nature. (There’s a whole wonderful vein of Romantic imagery showing philosophers and preachers on ice, being spiritual. A particularly wonderful one shows the great Goethe on skates with his nose in the air, about to be pelted by girls with snowballs.) It was only in the latter part of the nineteenth century that the idea of winter sports as a team and spectator activity came into existence. (The idea of alpine skiing as a sport at all, rather than a task, seems to date only from the eighteen-fifties.)
And that’s what winter sports still give us: a carved out social space in which we can find, or imagine, ourselves alone. As I said in those lectures, there is no alone so alone as that of the downhill skier or the luger—the long-distance runner may be lonely, but, with someone over his shoulder all the time, he is not alone. It takes an impulse to make a summer sport; you run or throw or catch in a meadow made by God. It takes work to make a winter one: you and your gang clear off the ice or ice up the track, build a ski lift or grab a blanket.
And here, I think, lies the real magic of watching the Winter Games to those of us who love them. Some small residual note, or aura, of privacy still persists in them, some idea of the solitary skater or skier is still evident even in their overorchestrated and microscopically documented form. That glum Norwegian guy on cross-country skis carrying his rifle slung across his back, steam rising from his mouth; the kid on the snowboard doing tricks; even the figure skater, out cutting lines in the ice in the darkness—for all the crowds and cameras that follow them, the special winter note of solitude is possible to discern in their determination, the difficulty of what they’re doing, the sense of lonely, focussed purpose they exude, even if that note rises from nothing more than the muffling snows that surround them. The biathlon is certainly a sport, but it is as far from being a spectator sport as any can be, even when we watch it. When poor Lindsey Jacobellis paused to do one last trick on her snowboard in 2006, costing her the gold medal as she fell from the excess, there was, surely, something foolishly private, a thing overseen, about it. That was the joke, and the error. “Snowboarding is meant to be fun,” she said, plaintively but truthfully, afterward. She was doing it by and for herself, and we were watching. Had she been left alone to fall, it would have been just fine.
The Olympics can still be characterized as a moment when Americans become passionate about athletes we have never heard of, participating in games we do not follow, according to rules we do not know, or trying to please judges we cannot see. This statement, true of the Summer Games, is redoubled for the winter ones. But the pleasures of seeing the private joys of sliding in winter made briefly public is worth it. And there’s an added poignancy to these Games, taking place, as they are, in Russia, the natural home of gravity and ice. The most famous celebration of the power of winter movement in all the world’s literature is in the last paragraphs of Gogol’s “Dead Souls,” where the novelist celebrates Russia itself as a troika racing through the snow:
The forest flies on both sides of the road with its dark rows of firs and pines, echoing with the ring of axes and the cawing of crows. The whole road is flying, no one knows where into the unseen distance…. Where art thou soaring away to, Russia? Give me the answer! But Russia gives none.
For almost a century, the passage seemed terrifyingly premonitory, the unknown destination being the hell of the camps and the Gulag and the totalitarian nightmare. Now the place the troika is flying to seems potentially less frightening, if still hardly Utopian. If we can see past the security frights and the ugly politics, the Russian winter, and the sport that takes place there, remains an odd arena of stasis and possibility, the fast and the frozen, as strange and glistening as ever.