When even the duffers at the muni golf course are talking about the Olympics, you know the ratings are through the roof.
Exhibit 1: There's a backup on the par-3 second hole at Jimmy Clay Municipal Golf course. I'm playing with two guys, obviously friends. One's a retired Air Force bird colonel from Bergstrom. The other's an ex-IBM manager, both breeds in abundant supply on Austin golf courses. They're ramrod straight, wiry thin guys with gray flattops. The kind of guys who, though they might introduce themselves to you as Bill and Mike, I'm going to call sir. To good-naturally slap the colonel on the back after a snappy duck hook and make any sort of references to injured wild life won't happen. I'll avoid eye contact and pretend nothing out of the ordinary occurred. These guys don't go to the ballet. They don't talk much about "issues." They'd think badly of any man who was ever in group therapy.
It would be difficult to find two people less likely to be arguing the relative merits of the pairs figure skating, yet here we are. It's Thursday, Feb. 14. It's windy. I start out with a quintuple bogey. (It was very windy!) I go through this litany as a rudimentary reality check; time, day, where am I? The sort of questions I once asked myself when the hallucinogens got a little too intense. If ice-skating has filtered down to the military/industrial culture, surely I've phase-shifted to another place. Some time between when the loudspeaker blares, "Five minute call for the Cotton twosome" and now, I'd morphed into a badly twisted universe where retired military officers discuss figure skating.
The IBMer asks the colonel if he saw what happened last night? The colonel says he did. The IBMer says it's a shame. All that work down the drain. The colonel agrees and didn't it figure it's a damn Russian. The colonel's pissed. "It's wrong, Mike. Just flat out wrong." Against every instinct, I have to say something. "Are you guys really serious?" They look at me as if I'd suggested turning IBM over to the employees.
Exhibit 2: I watch ESPN's The Sports Reporters every week. A panel of three national sportswriters -- bourbon and cigar-smoking guys -- discuss the sports stories of the week. I've never seen a female sportswriter on the set. There's grizzled old Bill Conlin, a badly jaded Jason Whitlock, and ESPN's NFL expert, Sal Paolantonio. These seen-it-all sages spend the entire first half of the show struggling gamely with the names of Yelena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze, not to mention the villain, a French judge named Marie-Reine Le Gougne. They graciously concede they know nothing about ice skating ... though they can explain the two-line offside pass. Still, strong opinions are offered. Then they switch topics to NASCAR. Dear lord, I've died and gone to hell. Was I that bad a person?
Discouraged, I pull out my trusty Sunday New York Times sports page. It's dominated by a large color picture of a guy in a Spider-Man outfit skating around a track. There are four stories on page one. Two about the scandal. One about ski jumping. One about Dale Earnhardt. Buried inside there's a short story about NFL coaching changes, a Met/ Yankee spring training preview. But it's mostly more ice skating. A tedious piece headlined, "A Peek Behind the Curtain at Skaters' Routines" (unseen rituals as competitors prepare). There's a half-page picture of Ole Bjoerndalen of Norway. It seems Ole had to ski two penalty laps because he missed 2 of 20 shots in the men's 12.5-kilometer biathlon. It's okay, though, he won anyway.
Is it possible that just maybe the General Hospital soap opera of figure skating needs this kind of controversy to get anybody to watch it? That just maybe NBC has milked a garden-variety, not really very exciting Olympic squabble into figure skating's own J'Accuse? Surely the Dreyfus Affair didn't garner a fraction of the sympathy lavished on the under-appreciated Canadians. When a colonel and a high level IBM manager are talking about this on the second tee, you know ratings have gone through the roof.
You could fill the UT football media guide with similar stories, none of which received this overwhelming media play. You could start with the blatant, nonambivalent, no-apologies-offered theft of an American basketball gold medal to the Soviet Union in the '72 Games, where the Eastern Bloc officials just kept putting time back on the clock until the Soviet squad won. Ah, those were the days. Now that was a scandal.
I suggest that if you want to see some shameless big-time athletic fraud, try boxing, where six of 10 championship bouts end in such outrageous theft that violent swirling melees involving boxers, hangers-on, fans, judges, and flying folding chairs are as commonplace as a beagle.
Clearly I'm out of touch. I can hear Kelly shouting. An American won a race on ice. A stoner girl did a neat snowboard trick.
Where is Tanya Harding? I miss her so.