One of the biggest problems with our jingoistic attitude towards the Olympics is that it robs us of the enjoyment of truly amazing Olympic upsets which don’t involve America.
Look, I get it. I grew up with the Cold War Olympics and let me tell you, it was awesome. Rooting against those dirty Russians as if the fate of the world depended on a triple lutz made the Olympics one of the best parts of the sports calendar. It was so great, so all-encompassing, that even liberal snooty pants like The Atlantic bemoan the Olympics becoming just a sporting event and not a political proxy war.
But here’s the thing... the Olympics are an amazing sporting event. It’s a cross-discipline international competition that honestly matters to the participants and the spectators. In nearly every sport, winning an Olympic medal is the pinnacle of achievement. That matters, even if they aren’t pawns in an ideological war. In fact, it might be even better.
However, Americans have a real problem seeing past their own noses, especially when it comes to sports. How can a sporting event matter if it does not directly implicate the USA? If it was really so great, it would be about us.
There aren’t many sure things in the Olympics, but one of the surest things was Felix Loch. Loch is a German luger who has dominated the sport since he was a teenager. Loch has won two gold medals and six world championships in men’s singles, the first one at age 18.
He had a shot to tie George Hackl’s record three consecutive golds in the event, but Hackl had the benefit of an extra Olympiad, when Lillehammer took place just two years after Albertville to put the Winter Olympics in a different year than the Summer Games. Loch had a very real chance to stake his claim as the greatest athlete in his sport’s history.
Everything was going to plan. David Gleischer of Austria barely qualified for his national team and took a surprising lead after the first run, but Loch had reasserted himself. By the end of the third run, Loch sat in first place ahead of American Chris Mazdzer. It was a tight race, but this was still to be a coronation. Loch doesn’t ever blow a lead on the final run.
Except this time. Gleischer threw down one of the fastest times of the day to seize first place. Mazdzer couldn’t keep pace with the Austrian’s scorching time. Still, he assured himself of a medal, as he was in second with just Loch to race. It is the first American medal in the event’s history.
Now, I don’t mind taking time to note the American story. It is cool that Marzdzer did something none of his countrymen had ever pulled off. But the big story happened a minute later when Loch touched a wall, regained control but lost speed, and ended up crossing the line completely out the medals. A visibly crushed Loch slumped on the track while Gleischer went absolutely bonkers with his Austrian teammates.
This was Michael Phelps losing to some swimmer from Canada no one had ever heard of. It was a titanic upset and easily the biggest story of the day, and maybe of the entire Games. Loch is a legend, a guy who has dominated his sport, and he made an error which cost him not only the third consecutive gold, but any medal at all.
It was that kind of day. Martin Fourcade has dominated biathlon to nearly the same extent Loch has crushed luge. He’s won 6 overall world titles and 21 discipline titles. He’s won four Olympic medals, two of them gold. To be fair, the sprint isn’t his specialty, but Fourcade is one of the favorites any time he lines up at the starting line.
The remarkable thing about biathlon is that it demands athletes go from skiing as hard as they can to settling themselves down and shooting at five targets with a rifle. Each miss results in a penalty lap which costs about 30 seconds.
Fourcade was en route to yet another dominating victory when he reached the prone shooting station. He missed. Then he missed again. And again. Somehow, the best biathlete in the world missed three shots at the world’s biggest stage, costing him three penalty laps and likely a minute and a half of time.
He finished 22 seconds off of the winner’s pace. Tarjei Boe, another big favorite, missed two prone shots and finished 33 seconds back. This opened the door for Germany’s Arnd Peiffer to take gold, a mere 4 seconds ahead of Michael Krcmar of the Czech Republic. No, I didn’t spell his name wrong.
Peiffer and Krcmar, not surprisingly, did not miss a shot. The all-time great made a mistake, but it took a perfect performance from someone else to take advantage of that mistake. Legends might stumble, but someone has to deal the killing blow.
Two of the surest things in these Games failed to come through. Loch and Fourcade are the Phelps and Bolt of their respective sports, and both made critical errors which cost them a medal, and maybe even the highest place in the history of their sport. Loch will always look at Hackl’s name in the record books and know he was mere seconds away from replacing him.
But that’s the great thing about sports. Battling history isn’t easy and sometimes even the very best guy in the world falls tantalizingly short of history. It’s a great story, and shame almost all of America missed it.