It would be a lie for me to say that I hate sports, but for the most part, I am largely indifferent to them. My interests lie elsewhere, and when my viewing options come down to, say, a rugby game or some Netflix browsing, film will win almost every single time. I’ve been to one football game in my life, which I remember little of beyond the delicious pie, and while I’ve enjoyed watching a few tennis games in my time, I lack the patience to sit through an entire match without changing the channel. I get the appeal of sports, and I hold no scorn for those who dedicate their time and attention to it, yet it remains something of a blind spot in my cultural understanding.
Yet over the past week, I’ve consumed hours of the stuff with increasing fervor. I’ve sobbed while watching sparkly clad ice skaters land triple Axels, I’ve cheered for half-pipe snowboarders who performed the most astounding dances in the air, and I’ve been half-tempted to pick a fight with nameless commentators who just don’t get what’s going on. I’ve watched a solid week of sports with little interruption and no side project to split my attention, as I am prone to doing with television. Dare I say it, but I’ve become quite the fan. This shouldn’t surprise me, because this happens every couple of years.
I remember when London held the Summer Olympics six years ago, a moment I held little regard for leading up to the opening ceremony, then being so overwhelmed by Danny Boyle’s show to the world. It was like an open invitation to drop the barriers and simply enjoy it for what it was. The Olympics is less a sporting event and more a uniting cultural experience beyond compare. To describe it cannot help but become a little fantastical, but even at my most ardently skeptical, the magic still holds. The Winter show is its own strange enterprise that continues to enthrall me.
Leslie Jones understands that all too well. Her own backseat commentary has taken her all the way to Pyeongchang and watching her phone-recorded clips of events like ice-skating and hockey has been an endless joy. What makes her excitement so alluring is that she’s the manifestation of all our Olympics-watching id. She doesn’t really know what’s going on or how a lot of these sports work, but who cares? We don’t know either! Jones has wholly embraced the oddness of Winter sports and it hasn’t dulled her bombast in the slightest.
Sports can make armchair experts of us all, but seldom is it as entertaining as it is during the Olympics when the events are the less common sports of the world, ones that sound like jokes when you try to describe them. You can go from laughing at the mere concept of the luge or biathlon to chanting in support of some European athlete whose name you only learned three days prior. Regardless of your own fitness levels — or lack thereof, in my case — you can pick up the terminology in record time and turn into the coach of their nightmares, criticizing that ski jumper’s messy lines or that one ice skater who could only land a double Axel. Something so seemingly mundane as curling can become must-see TV, simply because you’re more willing to drop your cynicism and take the time to understand the skill involved. For Jones, she knows what looks like winning and that’s enough to cheer for.
The ridiculous nature of it all — who the hell invented the skeleton racing and why? — becomes an undeniable joy. Yes, it’s weird and you’ll probably never sit down any other time of the year to watch bobsled, but you respect the talent and you know without a doubt that you could never do that. There are few things as pleasurable for spectators than watching highly competent people do what they do best. The only thing better is Jones’s own unashamed happiness. She’s damn proud to be there and she’s going to be the best tourist South Korea’s ever seen, whether she’s trying out the food or hanging with fellow fans.
Watching the Winter Olympics as a Brit offers its own unique excitement, in that we can be relatively neutral players for most of the occasion. There are skilled athletes competing and we’ve won a handful of medals, but we’re all too aware that this is not our field of expertise in general. We don’t get enough snow for it, nor do we have the provisions to support the necessary training. Without scores of Brits in every category to panic over - something exacerbated by our often exhausting commentators — we have the freedom to simply enjoy the sports without the flag waving. Sure, you can pick your favorites or your backup country, but there’s an appealing simplicity to just watching good people at work. Competition is one thing, but sports for the sake of sports gives me a far greater rush.
Still, this cannot be viewed without the unavoidable context within which the Olympics works. The International Olympic Committee is one mired in controversy and accusations of corruption. To mount that year’s games, the host country must spend billions and do so with the disheartening awareness that it won’t pay off in the long-term. Rio, Athens, Beijing, Sarajevo, Turin: The scars of the Olympics are laid bare across their cities. Stadiums that cost millions to build are left to rust and rot. The promise of prosperity and development lies in tatters, with abandoned buildings that once housed champions. It is not enough to have a month of solidarity and joy: The Olympics is something that carries the smothering weight of the economic burden, and they seem unwilling to acknowledge their role in perpetuating the problem. They want the highs but not the lows, even though the two are inextricably combined.
It is my hope that the IOC will make necessary changes in the future. The idea of permanent host cities for both the Summer and Winter games has been bandied about for years now, and it’s one they should seriously consider. It would make the games that much better to know that the aftermath of that short burst of excitement will continue into the long-term. Still, I cannot help but watch everything Olympics related I can get my hands on. Like my complex relationship with the World Cup - and the near comical corruption of FIFA - it’s something I have to deal with. I lack the finesse and knowledge to truly appreciate what I see but it does nothing to diminish my giddiness. I think of Leslie Jones, whose gusto and fangirl-level commentary has made NBC’s coverage that much better. When you love something that much, it’s infectious, and right now we could all use some of that in our lives.
Now, who wants some ice skating?
(Header photograph of precious gems Aliona Savchenko & Bruno Massot from Getty Images)