Comparing Olympic courage

My city, Vancouver, has been getting some international attention lately as the next in line to be Winter Olympic hosts, and we had a tiny trickle of snow yesterday to mark the occasion. Fortunately, we can rely on co-host Whistler to supply the white stuff for 2010. In anticipation of those Games, Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan will accept the Olympic flag from International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge at today’s closing ceremonies. Sullivan, who was paralysed in a skiing accident when he was a teenager, quipped: “There was a debate over whether we should send Vancouver’s worst skier to the Olympics to represent the country.”

While the closing ceremonies celebrate the ending of the Games, I celebrate the fact that Scrubs and My Name is Earl will soon return. NBC suffered some of the worst ratings ever for an Olympics, partly because the other networks didn’t play dead, partly because the time difference gave North Americans the results before prime-time coverage, partly because there were few compelling success stories.

I’ll watch almost any sport in person just for the spectacle, and in the right circumstances will uncomplainingly watch the occasional game on TV, but I’m not what you would call the target audience for Olympic coverage. The only winter sports I have the slightest interest in are figure skating and hockey, but these days, that interest is thinner than Sasha Cohen. I did catch some figure skating when I tuned in expecting to see Scrubs or Earl, forgetting the Olympics were on, or when I idly flipped through channels.

So I saw an interview with Evan Lysacek, an American figure skater, who declared he’d shown a lot of courage after giving a great free skate performance following a horrible short program. Are you supposed to say that about yourself? I thought that was the purpose of the overwrought analysts, producing features on athletes who have overcome all odds. And does getting over the flu count as one of those poignant stories? It doesn’t quite compare to Russian Tatiana Totmianina, whose partner dropped her on a lift in competition over a year ago, knocking her out and causing a severe concussion, who came to the Olympics with the same partner to perform the same routine. Now that’s courage. Or amnesia.

Courage is an overused word anyway, but I have a hard time with it being used in the Olympic context. Despite my disinterest, I’m all for the Games and their place as the pinnacle of athletic achievement. But it should be enough that the Olympics are a competition of athletic prowess, dedication, and determination, without turning them into a competition of so-called courage.

Most people have a hard-luck story in their background. Some pick themselves up after years of depression following a skiing accident that made them a quadriplegic, then create and oversee a variety of charities dedicated to helping people with disabilities before running for public office. Courage has to mean something more than overcoming the flu, or a bad performance, or it means nothing at all.

(Cross posted to Blogcritics)

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