There are a lot of ways to rate any Olympics, and the 2014 Sochi Games certainly ticks off a lot of the right boxes – except one.
It didn’t produce a breakout star, an athlete who captured viewers’ imaginations around the world, indelibly linking him or her to Sochi for years or decades to come.
The Games were a hit on so many levels. The snow largely held up in spite of warm weather and a couple of atrocious days of rain in the alpine competition areas. No one was killed by terrorists, a genuine fear since last summer, when Chechen separatists threatened to turn Sochi into Syria-by-the-sea. The Games were well-organized and ran smoothly, even if journalists’ turned complaints about medieval plumbing and side-by-side toilets into social media sport. The transportation system was a marvel. The security was annoying at times, but not excessive.
Okay, the food and the sweet, brown sludge that was allegedly coffee were barbaric. Maybe the Russian chefs couldn’t allow their counterparts at London’s 2012 Summer Games to win the culinary race to the bottom.
The problem was the 2014 Games felt, at least to me, more like a monster World Cup than a proper thrill-a-thon of an Olympics. Yes, there were upsets (Russia losing to Finland in men’s hockey comes to mind, along with the Kommersant newpaper headline “Burned in Finnish Sauna”).
But there are always upsets – that’s what makes sports fun. There were surprises galore, such as the Americans’ failure to win a single speed-skating medal.
There were non-surprises galore, too. A lot of athletes who were supposed to land on the podium did so – ho hum.
Speed-skier Bode Miller of the United States and colleague Julia Mancuso took bronzes. The shock would have come if they had left with no hardware. The bionic Norwegian cross-country skiing machine Ole Einar Bjoerndalen had won two gold medals by Friday, boosting his career Olympic medal count to 13. Canada’s Marielle Thompson took gold in women’s ski cross. But she was the world champion going in, so the surprise factor was heavily diluted.
Yes, there were some sensational moments. The Canada-U.S. women’s hockey game ranks as one of the greatest on-ice battles of all time. Marie-Philip Poulin’s overtime goal made her an instant hero a mare usque ad mare in Canada. But in other countries? Not likely.
Ditto 17-year-old Adelina Sotnikova of Russia, who was an outside chance for a podium finish in the women’s singles figure skating and twirled her way to gold, sending Russians into rapture and the South Koreans, who had expected Kim Yu-na to again emerge as the golden girl, into despair.
To be sure, there was no shortage of athletes who became national heroes such as Canada’s delightful, mogul-flattening sisters Justine and Chloé Dufour-Lapointe, who won gold and silver, respectively, and Tina Maze, the speed queen of little Slovenia, who captured two skiing golds.
What was missing was an athlete who emerged as the “face” of the Games, a superstar who, five or 10 years from now, would automatically roll off the lips when the 2014 Olympics are mentioned.
Any sports fan in their 60s or 70s will certainly remember Jean-Claude Killy, the gold medalist in three skiing competitions at the 1968 Olympics. Killy made maniac skiing thrilling and sexy.
The 1976 Summer Olympics, in Montreal, produced triple-gold winner Nadia Comaneci of Romania, the first gymnast to be awarded a perfect score of 10 in an Olympic gymnastic event.
The 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles belonged to U.S. sprinter Carl Lewis, just as the Beijing Games in 2008 belonged to his worthy successor, Usain Bolt of Jamaica.
The breakout star of the 2004 Olympics in Athens was swimmer Michael Phelps of the United States. His Athens gold tally was six, rounded out by two bronzes. He went on to dominate swimming in Beijing, taking eight golds, and disappointed himself by winning a mere four gold medals in 2012.
The 1988 Calgary Games are linked to East German figure skater Katarina Witt, though the comical losers – the Jamaican bobsleigh team and ski jumper Eddie (the Eagle) Edwards – are unforgettable almost three decades later.
Quick: What name do you attach to Sochi?
I’m struggling for an answer. Ditto with my colleagues. “Uh, um,” is the typical response. That’s why I think the Sochi Games lacked pizzazz, why they won’t linger in the public imagination.
But wait – I do have an answer: The face of the Sochi Games is Russian President Vladimir Putin. These were very much his Games, his way of proving to the world that Russia, a clapped out wreck of a state only a decade ago, could pull off a competent, glitch-free competition.
He succeeded. Good for him.
Too bad for the sporting side of Sochi.