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Friday, February 12, 2010

Let the Games Begin, Eh

The 2010 Winter Games are here. Regardless of how people feel about the Olympics or your general distrust of a governing body like the IOC, you have to admit that it’s just a cool sight to behold. The U.S. definitely got caught up in the 2008 Summer Games in Bejing with the Michael Phelps whirlwind in and out of the pool and I personally loved seeing Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh snap up the gold in Beach Volleyball. But for all the fanfare and bravura that the Summer Games hold, I still find something more magical about the Winter Games.  And I also feel the slowly rolling eyeballs of my wife shifting around as I get geeked over this.

For any of us that grew up in the early to mid 80s we are all pretty much familiar with the EPYX line of Olympic Games titles like Summer Games, Summer Games II, and of course Winter Games. I can remember being in grade school and playing Summer Games on a Commodore 64. The state of the art graphics *sarcasm* that was the C-64 made us drool at the prospect of competing in events like diving and the pole vault. I actually found a glitch that let me keep going until the height of the bar in the pole vault was way above the screen. But even then, the Winter Games edition was so much more fun and to this day I don’t think I ever successfully completed a bobsled run.

Maybe it’s the snow and the winter themes that make me want to watch the Winter Games more. If I were still in high school or college I could probably get away with vegging out in front of the television to watch all the events, but sadly, adulthood has robbed me of that luxury. In fact, I remember sitting in my homeroom in 1992 watching the U.S. Hockey team play a few rounds. Unfortunately, we took fourth place that year, far removed from my all time childhood geek moment in 1980 of seeing the Miracle On Ice. At the age of five I thought it was Pittsburgh that one because I hadn’t quite separated the Pittsburgh Steelers from the rest of the sporting world. So a win for the U.S. in my mind was a win for Pittsburgh. It wouldn’t be true for another 11 years when The Penguins won their first Stanley Cup.

But three years earlier, something out of the ordinary happened at the 1988 Winter Games in Calgary.  What seemed like a joke became a phenomenon as the Jamaican Bobsled team blazed onto the games, no pun intended.  While they didn't even finish, due to crashing their sled, they gained notoriety for showing what many consider the spirit of the games by picking up their sled and walking to the finish line.  They simply made it look fun.  They managed to qualify in 1992 and 1994 but did not win any medals.  However, they did reach 14th place which put them ahead of the U.S., Russia, Italian, and French teams.  Sadly, they did not qualify in 2006 nor did they qualify this year.  It's a shame, really, because they did win the gold at thr 2000 World Push Bobsled Championships.  Maybe next time, mon.

Also, us 30-somethings can remember that prior to 1994, the games ran in parallel with the Summer Games. Then skipping only two years, the Winter Games went opposite the Summer Games letting me bask in my dorkiness every couple of years.  That brings me back to the 1994 games.

It was a snowy Friday in February and I was a freshman in college. A high school buddy of mine had just transferred to the Oakland campus but still had friends at the UPJ location, where he spent his Freshman year. He invited me to trek up to see them for the night, which happened to be the night that Nancy Kerrigan, Tonya Harding, and Oksana Baiul competed for the medal in figure skating. The whole Kerrigan-Harding scandal was all the rage at the games and now it was time to see just how good everyone really was.

Johnstown is only around 90 minutes away from our hometown, but it's in what we call the snow belt. Being a recent transfer student myself, I was going from the mild climate of Myrtle Beach to the freezing concrete jungle of Pittsburgh so this trip took me full circle at seeing a winter wonderland. UPJ’s campus is/was like a ski resort. Nestled into the woods and with the new fallen snow, the campus buildings resemble the ski atmosphere of Aspen or the Poconos. This was a great setting in which to enjoy the Winter Games and to hold our own.

Between the main dorms, the frats and apartments, there lies a road that goes down a huge hill. The snow had packed into a slope of sorts and had become slick. We all took turns running from the top and diving onto our stomachs as we careened down the hill. I’m sure I was doing irreparable damage to my body, but at that age and with alcohol, anything was possible. We spent the rest of the evening watching the carnage of Tonya Harding breaking a shoe lace and ultimately Oksana Baiul taking the gold. It wasn’t exactly a very manly sight to see us critiquing the performances but again, with alcohol, anything is possible.

I spent the night curled up under a blanket on the cold tile floor of a dorm room and the next morning, my friend Scott and I made our way back down to civilization. The snow had continued to fall another couple of feet that night. I was totally unprepared for the weather, opting for a leather jacket, IIRC (mandatory Internet slang quota for this post reached). But I was really unprepared to see the snow up over the back bumper of Scott’s AMC Eagle. This did not phase Scott in the least.

You have to understand Scott to truly appreciate his insanity. This is the kid in high school that knew how to make bombs. He has a civil engineering degree and now works for the DOT. Go figure. In any case, while he was a freshman, the year before, we experienced The Storm of the Century. Being at UPJ, Scott was kind of like Dennis Quaid trekking to New York City in The Day After Tomorrow. He went out for a walk one day to the local Giant Eagle Supermarket. As he walked, he kicked something hard with his foot. He bent down and cleared around it and found a car that was buried in the snow. Again, I saw insane because he decided it would be a good idea to just go out for a walk in the snow that had buried a car.

But back to the Eagle. If I ever move to a region that ends up with a ton of snowfall, I would highly consider getting one of these classics. It’s like a tank. Scott had outfitted his with a hood ornament that was an actual Eagle from one of his childhood trophies. As I was lamenting the chore of having to dig out the car before we could leave, he simply said, “Get in.” I did and he fired up the beast. Threw it in reverse and simply backed out over the snow. As we drove away, I looked back at our parking space which now resembled the bottom portion of a Styrofoam packing insert. We drove out onto the highway which was completely devoid of cars, buried or otherwise.

While I was keen to catch what I could of the Olympic Games that year, I felt that I deserved a Gold Medal for using downhill body sledding and Scott deserved one for snow driving. Unfortunately, these events are not a part of the games, yet. The skeleton needs to just get rid of the sled and we’d have it. That may seem highly dangerous, but I’ll say it again…with alcohol….you get the picture.


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