Olympian-sized excuses follow failings
The Philadelphia Inquirer
SOCHI, Russia — Every Olympic athlete dreams.
No matter how sobering the truth might be, they all at some point can envision themselves atop a podium, a medal around their necks, their national anthem drifting down like a hymn.
Most, of course, never get the flesh-and-blood experience. And when reality slams headfirst into fantasy, emotions can swirl, thoughts can jumble, and excuses can fly.
If there's been a unifying competitive theme in Sochi, it's been the scope and variety of the excuses. While these 2014 Winter Olympics might lack for snow, they've been blanketed by blame.
The post-event rationalizations have been uttered everywhere — on the ski slopes, at the curling arena, at the bobsled run, and, most numerously, at the speedskating oval.
The Olympian-size litany of laments has not been limited to such traditional scapegoats as judges and injuries. It's included uniforms, crowds, Lasik surgery, high altitude, low altitude, new sleds, old skis, unmoored nets, warm weather, whistles, soft snow, hard tracks, village life, even the food.
There's a simple explanation. Despite the Olympics' sportsmanship mythology, the ego has a hard time swallowing defeat.
Take curling. It's a sport in which you don't ordinarily hear gripes. And if American skip John Shuster had his way, you wouldn't hear fans, either.
After a late mistake by Shuster allowed Russia to upset the United States last week, he lashed out at an enthusiastic home crowd that — unknowingly, it seemed — had ignored curling's tradition of golf-like silence.
He said it won't happen at next month's world championships in China. Shuster noted, "you would be able to hear a pin drop."
"There it's curlers watching curlers," he huffed. "Here it's Olympic fans cheering for Russia. You get this no other place than the Olympics."
You won't find Jamaican bobsledders anywhere but the Olympics either.
When that island nation's two-man team was in 30th place after two heats, driver Winston Watts sounded like an Alpine veteran.
"Poor visibility and moisture," he said.
American skier Bode Miller had a problem with visibility, too. His excuse after an eighth-place finish in the downhill takes the award for the most creative and multi-faceted so far.
Miller offered that he should have (A) changed skis, (B) been less aggressive and, since visibility was poor on the slopes, (C) had Lasik surgery.
"I was supposed to get an eye surgery earlier this year," Miller said. "We just never found the time to do it."
His American teammate Ted Ligety was done in by "funky" conditions in the Super-G. "Slushy snow" got Julia Mancuso in the downhill.
For cross-country skiers, some of whom were so hot they scissored the sleeves of their uniforms, mountain temperatures in the mid-50s were the culprit.
"I became a winter athlete to do my sport in winter, not in summer," sniffed Germany's Axel Teichmann, the men's 15K World Cup champ who finished eighth here.
American figure-skater Jeremy Abbott, a disappointing 12th in his discipline, pulled off the rare double excuse: A bad back and the distractions of the athletes village.
"It's easy to lose a sense of time and structure in the Olympic Village," he said. "It feels like summer camp. Like Neverland."
Two great hockey rivalries produced not just drama but excuses.
The U.S. women complained that a referee's whistle should have nullified the goal that was the difference in rival Canada a 3-2 opening-round victory.
"They made the wrong call," said Heather Knight.
Meanwhile, the Russian men lost their memorable battle with the United States on Saturday because, in their view, American goalie Jonathan Quick purposely unmoored the net on a goal subsequently overturned by review.
"He does that often," said Pavel Datysuk.
Hong Kong speedskater Barton Lui Pan probably would have won the 1,500 meters, he said, if only his team had provided a doctor to care for the muscle aches that prevented him from reaching the finals.
Shaun White had a bad wrist. Hannah Teter was jobbed by the judges. A hard and fast track did in German bobsledder Francesco Friedrich.
"I'm annoyed," Friedrich said.
Miller screwed up in the slalom portion of the combined because of "new equipment". Katie Uhlaender was denied a medal in the skeleton because she had only had two weeks to practice on a new sled.
But ground-zero for these losers' justifications has been the Adler Arena Skating Center, where the U.S. speedskating team has excused itself more often than an etiquette class with indigestion.
The Americans, with world-class long-track stars like Shani Davis and Heather Richardson, were expected to surpass easily the total of four medals they won at Vancouver.
Instead, they've been shut out.
Initially, the new Mach39 suits designed by UnderArmour were the popular target: They hadn't been available until late January. They were uncomfortable. An opening in the rear of the suit was acting as a drag.
"We're fighting the suits," an anonymous U.S. skater told Reuters.
Richardson sewed a patch over the opening in her suit . . . and still lost. The Americans ditched the Mach39s in favor of their old uniforms . . . and still lost.
"It could be the suits," Joey Mantia of the U.S. conceded uncertainly at that point, "or it could be the food. We don't know."
Next a U.S. speedskating coach suggested it could be the altitude. Sochi, he noted, is only 2,000 feet above sea level. Salt Lake City, where the team trained, was 4,300 feet above.
Finally, and to a lot of people this sounded more plausible than the others, the excuses themselves became the excuse.
"All this talk about different things definitely takes its toll," said Davis, a two-time gold medalist and current World Cup champion in the 1,000, who finished eighth in his pet event.
Curiously, since the athletes reside in the relative splendor of the villages, one thing that hasn't yet been blamed is the housing.
They've left that for everyone else in Sochi to complain about.