The Ends Have No End (Yet): Second Chances and Relegation at the Olympic Games

The Ends Have No End (Yet)

February 23rd, 2010

When Canada’s Kevin Martin won his tense matchup against Great Britain’s David Murdoch on Saturday night, it was a big win for Martin: it meant that he moved to 6-0, which pretty much guaranteed him a spot in the final four teams heading into the medal round, and thus a good chance of making it to the gold medal game and potentially avenging his loss in Salt Lake City. It was also a big boost for Team Canada as a whole, as it was a pretty disappointing day: despite three skaters competing in Short Track finals, and a legitimate medal contender in the Men’s 1500m at the Richmond Oval, Canada walked away without a single medal, the first day it has been held off the scoreboard thus far in the games. Martin’s win helped right the ship, so the speak, and Canadians could go to bed (or, if they didn’t stay up past midnight in the eastern half of the country, wake up) to.

However, for Scotland’s David Murdoch, it was something entirely different: that loss, his third of the tournament, put the defending World Champion at the edge of elimination, turning his Round Robin tournament into a three-game bout of sudden death. Murdoch has had an uneven tournament, and his only option after that point was to bounce back from a game that was very winnable to win three straight in order to even have a shot at making it to the Final Four. If he loses one more game, he is an Olympic athlete playing for pride, like the short track speed skaters (or Snowboard Cross competitors) relegated to the “B” Final, forced to race to decide who finishes in the positions that no one is really going to care about.

And for the sake of a great curler in David Murdoch, I hope he is able to keep from falling into their ranks.

In the “B” Final for the Men’s 1000m Short Track race on Saturday night, there were only two competitors: due to the disqualification of a number of skaters (including America J.R. Celski, who totally lost any respect he gained after coming back after a skate slashed through his thigh down to the bone), only two men didn’t make the “A” Final (and, frankly, one of them should have been disqualified for grabbing onto another skater at the finish line in the Semi-Final). And so, in the same sport where eight women skated for the Gold Medal in the 1500m race, two lone men skated around the ice. It was lonely, it was sad, and it reminded us that for all of the Olympic dreams that come true, a whole lot more come crashing down to Earth in something a little bit less than a blaze of glory. While there might be something sad about brothers Francois and Charles Hamelin getting into the five-person final and finishing fourth and fifth, there’s something more sad about never even getting that chance: similarly, while falling out of the Men’s Ski Cross final was probably disheartening for Canadian competitor Chris Del Bosco, it’s better than having a great race just to finish in 5th place; he had a bronze medal, but he pushed a final corner to try to go for Gold and went down in a blaze of glory.

What’s always interesting is how dynamic the Olympics are on this front. In sports like Hockey or Curling with Round Robin structures, there’s usually a chance to come back: tonight’s big Canada/USA hockey game was a huge cultural moment, and the US victory (on the back of goaltender Ryan Miller) is a big boost for their fortunes in the tournament, but it only creates a slightly longer road for the Canadians to travel. As noted the other day, I’m overly anxious during major sporting events, but this game was not sudden death, and so I was able to breathe easily (while actively avoiding actually watching to game to limit my exposure to what anxiety could still persist.

Meanwhile, in events like Alpine Skiing or Speed Skating where skaters usually compete in multiple events, there’s almost always a chance to bounce back: Lindsey Vonn fell in the Slalom portion of the Super Combined portion of the Alpine races, but came back to win Bronze in the Super-G. And for Charles Hamelin, who didn’t make the final in the last set of races, he was able to come back for another shot at winning a medal in the 1000m, a quest that fell a bit short. The same goes for Biathalon (various different distances), cross-country skiing, etc.

And in some other sports, you get multiple runs to improve your position: Canada’s Jon Montgomery won the Gold Medal in Men’s Skeleton on the fourth of four runs, while his teammate Mellisa Hollingsworth on the Women’s side made a critical mistake on her fourth run to fall out of the medals. And in Snowboarding’s Halfpipe, you get two chances to lay down a great run, where only the best score counts (unlike Skeleton, where the times are cumulative and thus a single big mistake could sink your chances).

But all that matters for the major networks is that eventually all sports come down to a single moment: figure skaters might do multiple programs, but the networks are waiting for that moment when Scott Moir and Tessa Virtue take to the ice, skate flawlessly, and become the first North American ice dancers to win Olympic Gold. They want it to come down to a single moment. For some sports, the buildup to that moment is an afternoon of qualifying, and in other sports it’s no buildup at all, a single race defining your Olympic dream. And for a sport like curling, the ordeal gets drawn out for over a week, and yet when two teams meet for gold on Friday and Saturday, the moments will be just as meaningful, and perhaps have even more subtext thanks to the ups and downs of the round robin (whether it’s the Great Britain men avenging their loss to the Canadians or the Canadian women avenging their Sunday loss to the Chinese, or any other combination).

Some Olympic dreams are drawn out a bit longer than others, but perhaps that just makes their eventual end more meaningful: if Canada were to come back to win gold in Men’s hockey after losing to the United States, it will be as if that loss never happened, and would be a much better story for people to tell their grandchildren (or, more accurately, a much better story for them to tell their grandchildren to google). But if they lose to Germany, or Russia, or the team that comes after Russia, or the team they face in the finals, they will be shuffled off the relegation. It’s suddenly become about sudden death, and the Olympic dreams that to this point were simply displaced are going to be crushed.

And while it might make me horribly anxious, the really great television is about to begin.

Cultural Observations

  • In case you were wondering, for some reason, about how I handled Canada’s game against the US anxiety-wise, I had The Amazing Race as a good excuse not to watch at all, which made things infinitely less tense.
  • I have watched enough curling (read: a LOT of Curling) in my day that I’m basically able to call the games from my couch, but I often like to challenge myself to see if I can “judge” sports I don’t normally understand. Usually commentators offer enough information that we can judge before the scores go up (Moguls, for example, became pretty easy once you knew speed, clean airs and knees close together were important). Ice Dancing was particularly fun in this respect, in that parts of it are easy (unison during spins) and others are more subjective (flow, power, difficulty, etc.).
  • It seems weird posting this without commenting on the controversy surrounding Own the Podium, but it was actually half-started before that all went down, so I’ll probably post more on that later in the week.


Filed under Olympics

3 responses to “The Ends Have No End (Yet): Second Chances and Relegation at the Olympic Games

  1. 1. Celski slipped and the Canadian ran into him, and somehow that diminishes his comeback?
    2. Why did the Canadian get put in the final round when he was in third place when the DQ took place?

    • 3. The Canadian who was improperly advanced probably cost Ohno the gold in the final.

    • It’s one thing to slip, but it’s another to do as Celski did, which was put his hand back and push the Canadian off his back.

      And in terms of the DQ, the way the Short Track system works is that skaters who were impacted by the actions resulting from the Disqualifications can be advanced to the final if the judges decide that their chances of making a move later in the race were diminished as a result. It’s subjective and weird, but that’s the sport.

      (And for the record, I’m not REALLY diminishing Celski, but he was skating dirty throughout his rounds, and it sort of went against the squeaky clean image he had during his Biggest Loser appearance).

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