The fun and Games are over

Tuesday, March 12, 2002

For 17 days, I wrapped the Olympics around me like a down comforter, sinking into the delightful shock of a teen-ager nailing his ski jump and the smile of a young man hurtling to victory in the skeleton with a photo of his grandfather in his helmet and the tearful "I love you" mouthed to his wife by a stunned speed-skater who will have a gold medal to show his co-workers at Home Depot.

But now, today, back to our previously scheduled programming.

Reporter Daniel Pearl is dead, his throat slashed on videotape. A teenager in New Jersey is charged with killing six people in a two-day spree. Osama bin Laden might be alive on the Afghan border. A 7-year-old disappears from her home.

The death toll of Israelis and Palestinians keeps rising.

The Olympics weren't supposed to captivate us this year. The Games would seem silly and frivolous while workers were still carting scrap metal from Ground Zero and forensic scientists were still trying to match body parts to names.

How could we pay attention to biathlon and snowboarding and ice dancing (especially ice dancing!) when American soldiers were sweeping for mines on country roads in Afghanistan? What could be more irrelevant during war and recession than the outcome of the men's 500-meter race in short-track skating? How could some young athlete's comeback from injuries touch the hearts of a nation wrung dry from real tragedy?

Something unexpected happened. We slipped into the Olympics as if it were the one quiet room in a turbulent house. Maybe it's human nature during uncertain times to seek out frivolity and amusement, pluck and luck, upliftment and escape. I tuned in every night, looking for the next installment in the Apolo Anton Ohno story, for the slide across the finish line, the disqualification of his South Korean rival, Ohno's own disqualification in the next race.

I watched the snowboarders, the bobsledders, the ski jumpers, the lugers, the skiers, the curlers, the skaters. Their stories unfolded like simple morality plays about hard work and the will to win. They knew exactly whom they were battling. They knew their goals. They knew when and whether they had won or lost. No faceless, elusive enemies. No murky objectives. No cloudy ideals. No slippery rhetoric.

It makes some sense now why we over-reacted just a tad to the figure-skating controversy. We in the media and the public didn't bother to wait for at least a semblance of an investigation before declaring all of figure skating a sewer and demanding gold medals for the aggrieved Canadian pair. The scandal, let's admit it, was fun. We could argue and get all sweaty over a battle that would not leave anyone dead or orphaned or homeless.

Suddenly, with our breathless discussion over figure skating, we were back to the pre-Sept. 11 days, when we could spend barrels of ink and rolls of videotape debating the number of days the president spent on vacation.

I pick up the newspapers I only have been skimming for the past two weeks. A mother stabs her son to death at her ex-husband's home. The Enron deceit continues to grow into some disfigured creature that every day sprouts new tentacles and scales. Our soldiers kill 16 Afghan villagers who are mistaken for al-Qaeda members. A father kills himself and five children with poison fumes from a charcoal grill in the living room. Another father shoots himself and his three children outside the Texas home of his estranged wife.

I am not ready. I'm hoping for just one more story about how 16-year-old skater Sarah Hughes lived a normal life while training for the Olympics. Or how bobsledder Vonetta Flowers redirected her dreams after failing to make the U.S. track and field team. No. Nothing. But there was this:

Only six more weeks until Opening Day of baseball season, and there's high hopes for the middle relief.

Joan Ryan writes a weekly column for Pilot-Tribune readers. She can be reached in care of this paper.