The Secret to Eternal Life

For countless thousands of years, humankind has run, jumped, swam and thrown things all in an effort either to procure food or else keep from becoming it. Walking upright, in fact–and all the activity that allows–is a signature characteristic of our species. I would even argue that we appreciate athletic excellence not merely for competition’s sake, or any recollection of our more sporting, youthful, selves: there may be some deep evolutionary impulse–something akin to muscle memory–that keeps us fans on the edge of our collective seats. So I understand the Olympics–at least the traditional, summer games.

I run 36 miles a week, which works out to six six-mile runs. And I loathe it, every atrocious step. Let me stipulate here that when much younger I was, with the proper inspiration, capable of covering three miles in roughly 15 minutes. But I never really tried to emulate any track stars; let’s call the proper inspiration–I don’t know–Lisa. Now though, on a good day, I’m doing well to complete my six miles in 54 minutes–during which I listen to up-tempo music and think, literally, about everything. Yet one thought dutifully recurs: It’s a damn good thing I’m not running a marathon.

Still, I do not miss the days of my youth–especially now that I’ve found the secret to eternal life: Watch figure skating on television. It is interminable. Even the so-called short program seems to go on forever; then each routine is replayed and rehashed, dissected down to the faults or flawlessness of the footwork in, frankly, silly images and arcane terminology. A skater may perform a Lutz or a Salchow, execute an axle, flip or toe-loop, and accomplish these in doubles or triples–but it looks to me like someone simply jumping and twirling. Sure, I couldn’t do it–not the landing, anyhow–and when done well it’s undeniably graceful. But who cares? Nobody really HAS to figure skate, at least not in the way that humans have had to run and jump since time immemorial.

And lest we forget: the judging. It was bad enough when done in dishonest blocs, but I’m still no fan of anything where compulsory elements are married up with degrees of difficulty to produce style points. I distrust style points. Give me the sports where time and/or distance matter more than style. Picture Usain Bolt having to jump and twirl a certain number of times during the length of the 100 meters. It’s ridiculous.

I’m not a complete curmudgeon. I’ll admit that I very much enjoy watching figure skating with my wife. But I like it because of her, because she likes it and I love her–and because she explains it to me. She also explains gymnastics to me during the summer games, even though I think anyone who has ever climbed a tree almost instinctively understands that sport. I certainly would never watch figure skating alone; well, I would if they would bring back the part of the competition where athletes used to have to try to cut a perfect figure eight on the ice. Isn’t that how figure skating got its name?

I also like all the Alpine and Nordic skiing, the biathlon and–for reasons I’m uncertain of–curling. In general, though, the winter Olympics leave me…cold.

This year at least, that’s something of an irony. Have you been following any of the coverage from Sochi? That’s my kind of winter. For the past two days here it’s been 75 degrees and sunny. That’s my kind of winter, too. The expression “Hot enough for you?” does not apply to me. A few summers back the mercury rose to 113 degrees, and my response was to mow the lawn. When I took our youngest son to Arizona one July to look at universities it was warm there, almost actually hot. The dashboard thermometer of our rental car read 114. We didn’t turn on the air conditioner. But I digress. When you look at the winter Olympics on television you expect to see snow, well, everywhere about the venue– not just atop its surrounding peaks. It is strange to see so much greenery in Sochi. Equally strange is the severe cold that the southern part of our own country has suffered this winter.

But what is not strange–sadly, because it has become all too commonplace–is the ever-looming threat of terrorism. That nothing has thus far occurred at the games is their sole shining success. Despite–at $50 billion–being the most expensive Olympics ever staged, reports from Sochi have been almost uniformly awful. Initially, it was unpaid and disgruntled security guards: could they be relied upon? Then it became apparent that the Russians, much like our own NSA, were listening in on privileged communications. Next, the facilities themselves–thrown together with all the care, say, of a fresh gold rush town–were feared to be substandard. Bob Costas’ eyes went flooey. Finally, the weather, at least for winter, has been awful. By which I mean warm. Complaints have been legion about conditions on the downhill slopes and the half pipe. Still, the games go on.

That’s because they have the antidote to everything. What do you turn to when besieged by misfortune? What do you turn to when, despite all of its troubles, life appears–paradoxically–too short? You turn the channel to the short program. In short, you turn to figure skating.

­­— Joseph Oldenbourg

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