Max’s Magnificent Torch for the Dreadful Olympics

Illustration by Max Burbank

BY MAX BURBANK | Oh lord, it’s here! The Winter Olympics! That magical time when everybody pretends to be wildly passionate and knowledgeable about figure skating, despite the fact it’s the only time they ever watch it. I mean, between cable, Dish, and the Internet, you could watch figure skating if not constantly, certainly weekly. People who hate baseball but get giddy over figure skating watch more baseball than they do figure skating. Baseball fan or not, you know the basic rules, right? But you only pretend you know what a “triple Lutz” is.

Aren’t you ashamed that until you read this sentence, you thought the maneuver known as a “Salchow” — a jump featuring a backward takeoff from the backward inside edge of one skate to the backward outside edge of the other, with one or more full turns in the air, requiring the use of the word “backward” THREE TIMES just to describe it — was called a “sowcow?” Didn’t you wonder why a particularly difficult jump taking years to master would be named after some sort of hideous bovine/pig hybrid? You did not. That is the kind of hold the Olympics has over people. It’s so magical it makes us stupid. And that’s my point.

The Olympics is the pinnacle of human physical achievement and a cesspool of doping, institutional corruption, and color commentary so god-awful it could make you wish someone would pull your brain out through your nose like the ancient Egyptians did — but at least they had the decency to wait until you were dead. It’s everything and nothing, the best of times and the worst of times, just like America! Or your life. Or poutine. If you don’t know what that last one is, Google it. Because the Olympics is totally poutine.

The Olympics is the perfect metaphor for… well, everything involved with the human condition. Like life itself, the Olympics is simultaneously magnificent and dreadful.

“That’s an interesting thesis, Mr. Burbank. Would you care to support it with evidence from childhood memories?” Gladly, and also I’m not entirely sure I care for your tone, imaginary reader’s voice in my head.

1968, Grenoble, France. The first Olympics I remember. I was six years old, watching it in black and white. Jean-Claude Killy was my hero. Suave, debonair, quintessentially French, the son of a Spitfire pilot for the Free-French during the Nazi occupation, he dominated the alpine events, taking home three gold medals and, yes, the parts of my confused child’s heart not already committed to Peggy Fleming, America’s figure skating sweetheart. Killy’s reward? In 1972 he starred in the movie “Snow Job,” a heist flick wherein a French ski instructor skis a lot and also pulls off a very complicated bank robbery to impress his co-conspirator/girlfriend — but in the last minute of the film, you find out it was a con job and Killy splits the money with the insurance agency detective who’s been pursuing them but turns out to have been in on it all along. How awful a film is it? Well, Killy only acted once more, in the 1983 Jim Carrey/Alan Thicke buddy comedy, “Copper Mountain, A Club Med Experience.” Killy played himself, and his screen time was mercifully brief.

That same winter Olympics, the captain of the US women’s ski team and a favorite for the gold, Suzanne Stevia “Suzy” Chaffee, finished a disappointing 28th in the downhill. Her life after retirement was in every way exemplary and inspiring. She championed Title IX legislation, demanding equal opportunity for women in school sports. She was the first woman to serve on the board of the United States Olympic Committee, and co-founded the Native Voices Foundation, and advocacy organization seeking to develop Olympians from Native American tribes. So how is Ms. Chaffee best remembered? From an ad campaign wherein she ponders the possibility of changing her name to “Suzy ChapStick.” And remember Peggy Flemming? She was the spokesperson for Robitussin’s “Last Names Giveaway” campaign. Because her surname sounds like phlegm.

Think it was just my first Olympics that leaned so heavily on pathos and irony? Try Googling this string: “Olympics embarrassments disappointments god-awful scandals crimes.” From geopolitics to doping to the ritual humiliation we inevitably visit upon our heroes, it has always been thus. It’s human nature that bearing witness to excellence thrills us briefly and then compels us to transform it into a giant slalom of excrement.

There can be no doubt — the Olympics inspire. But about half of what it inspires is reprehensible. Fox News had to take down a column written by executive editor John Moody arguing that the US Olympic Committee wanted to change their motto from “Faster, Higher, Stronger” to “Darker, Gayer, Different.” Okay, A) That’s terrible writing. The adjectives aren’t opposites or even slightly parallel, and B) How ugly does a sentiment have to be for Fox News, the network that thought Roy Moore might make a pretty okay Senator, to officially state it does not reflect their views and values?

And hey, where’s President “America First!” in all of this? As of press time, team USA had five gold medals. Wouldn’t you think there’d be a “Failing fake news media won’t report most gold medals won under any presidency!” tweet? My god, he tweeted about NASCAR the day I wrote this, but aside from some generic boilerplate about the opening ceremonies obviously written by Hope Hicks, nothing.

Honestly, there’s not much he can tweet about it. What would he tweet? “Congratulations on half-pipe gold, Chloe Kim! Hope you love ICE as much as snow! So convenient Olympics in South Korea, feel free to stay! Why can’t our immigrant athletes be from Norway? They win most medals!” “Adam Rippon let America down, didn’t individual medal, only team. Many people are saying lifestyle choice. Should have chosen to be Norwegian. So much more manly. So glistening white.”

Trump himself is too one-dimensional to be like the Olympics, but the games are a perfect metaphor for the American presidency — an office that has been home to the unmatched genius of Jefferson, the heart, passion, and courage of Lincoln, and Obama’s eloquence and steady hand is now occupied by a boy king who makes George W. Bush look like that uncle who’s kind of fun at Thanksgiving as long as it’s the only time you see him. Remember when you thought there could never be a president that damn teeth-grindingly stupid? Sweet, sweet, nostalgia.

Ivanka is scheduled to attend the closing ceremonies. That should finally draw our president’s attention. “About time Olympics got good! Forget Darker, Gayer, Different. Gimmee Whiter, Blonder, HOT!!!”

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