It was a good old-fashioned Olympic scandal in Sochi, when South Korean figure skater Kim Yuna, known as “the Queen,” lost to a less experienced Russian. The judgment spurred millions of angry Tweets, and a Change.org petition protesting the result was the fastest growing one on site record—reportedly more than 1.2 million signatures in about 12 hours.
Skating officials and fans around the world have questioned the decision, but critics remain focused on the South Korean outrage, largely since their sports fanaticism has made headlines before. Diehard citizens of countries like South Korea may seem odd to some; a post on Yahoo had the misguided headline: “Deal with it, South Korea.” But this line of thinking fails to understand the nature of nationalism, an ideology strongly associated with war and extremism that is in fact a common psychological phenomenon seen in everyday life—including sports.
Read more. [Image: Vhadim Ghirda/AP Photo]
“Redemption” is a word that gets tossed around a lot in figure skating—sports reporters have used it more times in this Olympics than I could even begin to count.
But in the end, figure skating at the 2014 Winter Olympics really was about redemption. This year’s event was full of occasions when no other word would do.
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For the second straight Winter Olympics, the U.S. and Canada are in each other’s way for hockey gold. The American and Canadian women face off in the gold medal game on Thursday at noon Eastern, while the men battle Friday in a semifinal match between tournament favorites.
The twin-bill North American throwdown has many people talking about a U.S.-Canada hockey rivalry being one of the best parts of these Winter Olympics. “If it seems like the USA-Canada Olympic rivalry is heated already, it might melt the ice by the end of the week,” trumpeted Bleacher Report’s Dan Levy. A video segment by USA Today’s Christine Brennan previewing Thursday’s Olympic action was titled “The Best Olympic Rivalry: USA-Canada in Women’s Hockey.”
It’s true that the Olympic matchups between the U.S. and Canada have gotten more competitive, more dramatic, and more fierce in the last two decades. But a true rivalry has ebbs and flows—and for most of the last 90 years, Canada has owned the United States in Olympic hockey.
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"Goaltending is an extreme sport inside an extreme sport: Your job is to go out on the ice and repeatedly get in the way of a frozen hard-rubber disc that moves faster than anything you directly interact with in your normal life."
J.J. Gould, the executive editor of TheAtlantic.com and a former goalie, talks tactics.
In Finland not long after World War II, kids would play a street game called ice ball, which had few rules and less strategy. They’d scramble through neighborhoods buried in snow, batting and kicking a piece of cork the size of a tennis ball—graduating, eventually, if they were keen and had money for skates, to a soccer field covered with ice. But some of the more serious kids wanted to play hockey. Back then, teams weren’t especially well organized: the worst athlete was usually stuck in front of a net, while the better ones attacked. Until one day, in the early 1950s, a hockey team in Rauma put a kid called Upi, who had been a powerful skater since his ice-ball days, in the net. And his team began to win.
About 10 years later, Upi—emphasis on the oop—moved to Turku, on the southwestern coast, where he found a place in goal for one of the local hockey teams. Like Roy Hobbs, he fashioned his own stick. Turku was a port town, roughly halfway between Stockholm and the Soviet border, the gateway to a 20,000-island archipelago that extends into the Baltic Sea. Its people knew how to fish and build big ships. Few people had TVs. No book about how to be a goaltender had ever been translated into Finnish. And so nobody really knew what a goalie was supposed to do. (The first proper indoor ice-hockey rink in all of Finland wouldn’t be completed until 1965.) In this splendid isolation, a school of goaltending was born, with Upi, who today is 70, as its first practitioner and eventual guru.
Until recently, aside from a handful of Americans and Europeans, National Hockey League goalies were overwhelmingly Canadian. But at the turn of the millennium, the Finns began to arrive. In 2002, Pasi Nurminen secured a starting role in Atlanta. The next season, Miikka Kiprusoff led Calgary to the league-championship finals. And then it was as though a dam broke: Vesa Toskala, Kari Lehtonen, Niklas Bäckström, Pekka Rinne, Tuukka Rask. Before 2002, no Finnish goaltender had ever locked down a starting role in the NHL. Suddenly, a country with a population of just more than 5 million people was producing one-sixth of the league’s starting goalies, most of them true blue chips. The Finns, who have now won just about everything a goalie can win in the league, are not particularly distinguished at any other position. (One NHL general manager suggested to me that outside of goaltending, no Finnish skater would crack a list of even the top 50 Canadians.) Yet any of Finland’s three Olympic goalies could have started for Canada’s team this year. How deep is Finland’s pool of talent? In 2008, the Chicago Blackhawks signed an undrafted kid who’d only recently started playing in Finland’s top professional league—before that he’d been driving a Zamboni in suburban Helsinki to pay his bills. Two years after he was signed, Antti Niemi led the Blackhawks to the championship.
This has unsettled the birthplace of hockey. In any single game, the most important player on the ice is typically the goaltender. For the past quarter century, Canadians like me have been especially smug about what seemed to be an endless supply of elite goaltenders from Quebec. Yet at the same moment that Finland’s goalies have glided so effortlessly onto hockey’s biggest stages, a crisis of confidence has begun to emerge in Canada. The last great Canadian netminder, Martin Brodeur, is in his 40s. And the pipeline behind him has gone dry.
A bunch of half-cocked theories have emerged to explain how these Finnish goaltenders came to be. People I asked would cite everything from the welfare state to the stoic national character. Then I began to hear too about Urpo Ylönen, the old man who lived on Finland’s southwestern coast. People who knew hockey and Finland spoke of him the way Jedis would talk about Yoda or Obi-Wan Kenobi. That they referred to him simply as Upi only added to the mystique. So early one foggy morning, I found myself on a train from Helsinki to Turku, a place I knew only from the back of hockey cards, hoping to meet him—and to figure out what had gone so awry back home.
Read more. [Image: Tuukka Koski]
In 2001, Alan Webb was a senior at South Lakes High School in Reston, Virginia. He was also a distance runner who’d been winning races and breaking records since his freshman year. On May 27th, at a track meet in Oregon, Webb ran a mile in three minutes and 53.43 seconds.
He had broken four minutes in the mile before, clocking a 3:59.86 indoors on January 20, 2001, at the New York City Armory. The sub-4-minute mile is a hallowed mark that, to this date, separates the pros from the amateurs in middle-distance running. Only five high-school runners have ever done it: Jim Ryun was the first, in 1964, and he eventually set the high-school mile record at 3:55.3. No scholastic athlete could best that, until Webb came along. 3:53 is now the fastest mile an American high-school athlete has ever run.
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The overall medal count obscures how these small countries are outperforming their rivals in 2014.
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In the USA’s 7-1 drubbing of Slovakia in the preliminary round of men’s hockey tournament at the Olympic Games in Sochi on Thursday, two Americans appeared to be able to communicate telepathically on the ice. Forwards Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk, who are both among the NHL scoring leaders this season, combined for two goals and three assists against the overmatched Slovaks and seemed to be a half-step ahead of the defense when they were on the ice together.
The two forwards are teammates on the Toronto Maple Leafs, and U.S. coach Dan Bylsma paired them together on the same line because he believed that all the ice time Kessel and van Riemsdyk have shared together in Toronto would pay dividends in Sochi. Though it was just one game and Slovakia is not nearly as talented as the Canadians or Russians, Bylsma looked like a genius as the two Maple Leafs led the offensive onslaught during America’s six-goal second period.
Read more. [Image: Matt Slocum/AP]
Just before Russian figure-skating pair Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov took the ice in last night’s free-skate event, NBC cut to a short package about the gold-medal favorites (and eventual gold medalists). After a few moments’ worth of practice footage and behind-the-scenes stories from the four years the pair has been skating together, NBC’s reporter asked Trankov and Volosozhar the inevitable question: Is the palpable, sensual chemistry they exude on the ice based in real-life romance?
Given the unique talent, rare achievements, and all-consuming dedication of these two world-class athletes, it’s obviously somewhat silly for a reporter to push past the discussion of their professional accomplishments and instead ask about love lives. But the modern Olympics, whether we like it or not, have become an opportunity for viewers to get to know elite athletes by proxy, to feel like they’re rooting for their friends-once-removed. It’s only natural to want to know what kind of love drives a champion to succeed at the Games—in this case, whether it’s love of sport, love of country, or love of teammate.
Listening to the reporter’s paraphrasing during the segment, you might get the impression that the Volosozhar and Trankov are simply elusive or private about the status of their relationship off the ice; they’d effectively skirted the issue for some time now, the reporter summarized. But Volosozhar and Trankov’s assessment of whether they’re a couple was both direct and quietly astonishing: They are, sort of.
As a kid, it was easy to root for the improbably perfect rookie. But as Jeter’s mythical status faded, I learned to see Derek for Derek.
Read more. [Image: Charlie Riedel/AP]