Skieologians: The sport theology column

Skieologians: The sport theology column

What really draws us to the Olympics are the shared human experiences

One week into the Games, this skieologian’s space has been primarily dedicated to deeper dives into some of the darker aspects of the 2022 Beijing Olympics. While issues of human rights certainly deserve our attention, it occurred to me that no matter how bleak things seem on or off the ice (or slope, course … you get the picture), we turn our eyes to the five rings every four years because of their unique ability conjure up feelings of universal truths. 

Once again, the Games of the 24th Olympiad have provided us with numerous “thrills of victory” and “agonies of defeat,” snapshots that kindle reflections on our own humanity, with all of its highs and lows. 

The caricature cutting closest to home was of course Vail’s Mikaela Shiffrin’s disconsolate figure, head between legs, on the side of the slalom course. Meters away from the track she’s owned, her performance and her comments afterward were about as relatable as her physique and prowess on the piste are not.

More dominant than Tiger Woods in 2001, more used to winning than Brady and Belicheck … every year … Shiffrin’s slalom represented the surest thing for gold — or at least a medal — but most certainly a finishing time. The lasting image of our 26-year-old hero’s utter disappointment is one of the purest reminders I’ve seen in sports of just how in control humans are over their destiny. The acknowledgment of our lack of sovereignty — seemingly known by all but recognized by few — was pristinely evident as the world’s premiere superstar figuratively and literally bowed the knee. 

Ultimately, it feels as if our fates are as individual and discoverable as snowflakes on that slope. But when idols like Shiffrin experience the “worst possible scenarios,” just like the rest of us, and transparently acknowledge the doubts and disappointment, we find ourselves glued to the storyline on a deep, invested level. When we really sit and ponder, we are moved to clutch a brighter hope as well, that our fates are akin to the winter crystals in another way: their intricate and beautiful design.  

Jessie Diggins globally recognized achievement came with the 2018 team sprint gold medal. For ardent Nordic fans who see the Steve Prefontaine of skiing embodied in her tendency to go full-throttle in every single race, the most beautiful performance she gave us thus far was not giving the nation it’s first female individual medal in the freestyle sprint earlier this week. Rather, it was the second half of the 15-kilometer skiathlon. 

Switching to her skate skis at the halfway point of the dual-discipline race, Diggins sat in 11th, 54 seconds from bronze position. Diggins never raced as if the podium was out of reach, though it likely was. Instead, she poured her heart, soul and lungs into every square inch of the Zhangjiakou venue. It didn’t matter that T.V. cameras had given up on her, nor was it relevant that she would not be rewarded with hardware at the finish. Diggins gave a poignant reminder for every evening shift worker at Walmart, policeman patrolling a quiet street and mom cleaning up the playroom for the fourth time of the day that all work: even the stuff no one sees deserves wholehearted devotion. 

Her sixth-place finish, which included the fastest freestyle leg in the field by a whopping eight seconds, wasn’t just pure grit and guts on display. It was a picture of what it looks like to actually walk the walk. It’s easy to eke out every cent of your being when glory is at stake. But when a win or record — or a watching fan — is nowhere in sight, the true champions show their true color. 

I would be remiss to finish this midway montage without celebrating a victory for ‘Murica. Thankfully, we have Nathan Chen. I recommend watching his quad-filled final, a piece of playful perfection, on Peacock’s non-commentated version. Nothing interrupts the sounds of Elton John’s “Rocketman” remix launching Chen to the galactic limit of figure skating, where his legacy as a star will burn for eternity, somewhere next to Polaris, the new true north of sporting excellence.

And of course, the fitting ending for this skieologianing sermon is Shaun White, the five-time Olympian who placed fourth in his last go. The chairmen of the halfpipe, whose career started when I was a kid and ended as I rocked my own to sleep, watching the three-time gold medalist shed tears of sentimentality at the base of an event he built with his huge air, death-defying tricks, and effortless landings, finally flew off into the sunset. He epitomized another reality we all share regarding this life: it’s a great thing, but it, too, will someday come to an end.

When these Olympics end, hopefully you can find a little spot in your soul, somewhere between getting frustrated over the political issues, the doping allegations and the crooked judging, to connect with these Games and experience the magic alongside the incredible people.

People who are actually, just like you.

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