Lange: Athletic Competition

Feb 26, 2014

Those of us who were once involved in winter sports – skiing, skating, bobsledding – might easily dismiss the spectacle of the Olympics. The starting line of a cross-country race, for example, represents sometimes lonely years of weight lifting, hill running, wind sprints, waxing, and thousands of miles of looking at the words Fischer, Rossignol, or Karhu shooting ahead of you in the snow.

On top of that, you know the Scandinavians have been skiing even longer, in better snow, and with much greater cultural support. (At the Holmenkollen ski jump near Oslo there’s even a statue of King Olav the Fifth cross-country skiing with his poodle.)

So you might find all the Olympic hoopla a bit off-putting. You want to get on with it – to take a few more laps on the course or turns on the rink before they close it to practice; you worry about the weather; and obsess over each twinge, achy muscle, or hot spot on your hands and feet. Every waking moment – and many sleeping ones, too – is fixed on your next event. It plays over and over in your imagination, like a video tape loop.

You’re a member of a team, wearing a uniform. You’re young enough still to be stirred by pep talks about team spirit, and bringing home the glory to your motherland. But mainly you want to break out, to do better this time against the athletes who’ve always beaten you. The competition is between you and them, but most of all between you and your pain.

Athletic competition is Darwinian: the fittest dominate. Yet at rare moments a humane spirit surfaces, more memorable than the triumphant gestures of arms in the air.

Anton Gafarov, a Russian in the men’s freestyle sprint, shredded a ski, but struggled to complete the heat. Justin Wadsworth, a Canadian coach, ran onto the track with a spare ski and fastened it to Gafarov’s foot. Gafarov finished dead last, to tumultuous applause. Switching skis was against the rules, but Wadsworth acted instinctively. It didn’t affect the result, but expressed perfectly the empathy of one athlete for another. As did the crowd cheering Gafarov at the finish.

Bill Koch recalls that in the 1976 Olympics, in which he won a silver medal at 30 kilometers, he entered the 50-kilometer race, skied at the front of the pack, but hit the wall about 5 kilometers from the end. Struggling up a hill and wondering if he’d even finish, he felt a large hand in the middle of his back. Juha Mieto, a 6’5”, 210-pound Finn and everybody’s sentimental favorite, pushed him up the hill. “It was an infusion of spirit,” Koch said later, “knowing that another athlete, who knew exactly what I was going through, helped me. At the top of the hill, I knew I could finish. He went on to get seventh or eighth. I finished 13th. I'll never forget that. Never."

This is Willem Lange in Montpelier, and I gotta get back to work.