Sports

Bob Ryan

The Winter Olympics are not what they used to be

FILE - IOC Bans Russia from 2018 Winter Olympics PYEONGCHANG-GUN, SOUTH KOREA - FEBRUARY 4: The Olympic rings is seen in Hoenggye town, near the venue for the Opening and Closing ceremony ahead of PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games on February 4, 2017 in Pyeongchang-gun, South Korea. (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)
Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images
The 2018 Winter Olympics begin Feb. 9 in South Korea.

The Winter Olympics are a colossal disaster.

This saddens me. It doesn’t have to be that way.

It’s not just the Russia doping mess. The International Olympic Committee acted intelligently, for once, by taking action against the relentless, incorrigible dopers. And by restricting Russian participation, and eliminating Russia as an entity — selected individuals supposedly competing sans drugs will be allowed to participate as an “Olympic athlete from Russia” — the legitimacy of the Games will be diminished. With or without drugs, Russia is a major power in the world of winter sports. You can be certain that many of its athletes would have won medals even if competing clean.

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But I think we can accept the verdict as just. After all, the whistleblower in this fascinating story is Grigory Rodchenkov, the man who actually was the overseer of Russia’s doping system. He now lives in witness protection in the United States. Russia did cheat, and cheat on a massive scale. The Sochi Olympics were a farce.

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They were also a farce on other levels, such as being in Sochi in the first place. Lord knows what level of bribery had to have taken place in order to award the 2014 Winter Games to Sochi, a summer resort. Yes, summer. The same logic applies to the decision making Beijing the site of the 2022 Winter Olympics. If Beijing is a winter sports destination, then so, too, is Miami. But money speaks.

My problem in all this is that I was hopelessly spoiled by my first Winter Games. I was privileged to cover the extraordinary event that took place from Feb. 12-27 in 1994. The site of those Winter Games was Lillehammer, Norway, a town of some 25,000.

I went there with trepidation. What did I know about most of these sports? Aside from a reasonably decent feel for hockey, the answer was nothing. I was on record as saying that the marquee sport, figure skating, was an artistic expression that shouldn’t even be judged. I feared it was going to be a very long 2½ weeks.

I was in for one of the great adventures of my journalistic life.

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Lillehammer was right out of central casting. It was a pretty village in which the entire population cared deeply about the sports in question. There were huge drifts of snow when we got there, and there was a gentle trickle of flakes during the Opening Ceremony (think the confetti showering the stage during the Boston Pops rendition of “White Christmas”). It never snowed again. It was easy to get around, and each ride to a venue was more spectacular than the last. You want to talk scenery . . .

The result was a true Winter Wonderland. And the buzz! What Norway wasn’t winning, Sweden was winning, and those two are the Duke and North Carolina of winter sports. Every night throngs of people gathered inside these giant drinking halls, where song would break out. They sang if they won. They sang if they lost. And everyone knew all the words.

I developed a healthy respect for cross-country skiing. There will always be an unwinnable argument among fans as to which sport is the toughest, most grueling, etc., but right there in the discussion is cross-country skiing. The 50-kilometer men’s race is unimaginably taxing, and then there was the 4 x 10-kilometer relay, in which Norway and Italy launched a rivalry that would last for three Olympiads, and at the end of which, over 120 K of amazing skiing, the difference between the two was less than the length of a single ski. Swear to God. And we think Red Sox-Yankees is pretty good.

And never in my life did I think I would care about a 10,000-meter speedskating race, particularly when it was a rout. But I guess you had to be there when Norwegian Johann Olav Koss was demolishing the competition and the crowd was roaring with the posting of each split, the crowd consisting of speedskating aficionados.

For added drama to placate the Americans, this was the Winter Games of Nancy vs. Tonya. I was involved in that, of course, although not to the same extent as colleagues John Powers and Mike Madden. It sure meant there was never a dull moment. I am no figure skating expert, to be sure, but I will always believe Nancy got robbed (just as I still think Marvelous Marvin won the Sugar Ray fight).

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I lapped it all up, and it was a welcome introduction to an entirely different world that cares not about Super Bowls. They were Winter Games in the proper context, in front of a properly appreciative audience. It was the way Winter Games should be, at least to my way of thinking.

Sadly, there will never be another Lillehammer. The Games are bloated and they have gotten too expensive to stage, and most people don’t even want them. Sochi was a monument to the ego of Vladimir Putin, and nothing else. Beijing’s only competition was Almaty, Kazakhstan. The 2018 Games in PyeongChang, South Korea, are in trouble because of low ticket sales, traveler fears about being anywhere near North Korea at this point in time, and the doping mess that will keep Russian participation to a minimum.

It’s too bad I can’t just jump into Mr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine and go back to Lillehammer. The Winter Games were never better.

Bob Ryan’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.