Joel Reichenberger: No small sports at Olympics, only small countries
February 9, 2014
Sochi, Russia — At the Olympics, they have cheerleaders and a marching band for the halftime of speedskating events.
Oh, yeah, and at the Olympics, they have halftimes at speedskating events, or first- and second-period breaks, as the case may be.
One of the great things about a press credential at the Olympics is you can get into nearly any event at the games. The high-profile competitions are restricted — we had to get media tickets for the opening ceremony, for instance — but for everything else, you just show up.
With some time to kill Saturday in Sochi, Russia, a 45-minute bus ride from our condo and the mountain cluster events, I just showed up at the only event going on at the moment: the men's 5,000-meter speedskating race.
I showed up an hour early to nearly empty stands, and for some reason, I thought it would stay like that.
Who cares about speedskating, I thought?
Sure, I remember the strong American speedskaters of my youth, Bonnie Blair and Dan Jansen, and I know Shani Davis has been one of the big American Winter Olympics stars the past eight years, and that he could be again.
I'm not saying my assumption I'd be in an empty arena made any sense. I'm just saying it was my assumption.
And it was wrong because at the Winter Olympics, there may be small countries, but there are no small sports.
Watching the race was eye opening, from the graceful power of the world's top racers to the raucous insanity of their fans.
A man sitting about five rows down from me came with a giant curly black wig and an airhorn. The arena’s staff spent nearly an hour debating before deciding they could confiscate it — the airhorn, fortunately, not the wig. He wore the wig proudly before and after the horn gig was up.
He was cheering for the Russians, or so his frequent blasts would indicate. He wasn't alone. Residents of the host country turned out in force to cheer on their contingent, and when Denis Yuskov laid down the best early time in the race, they roared, rattling cowbells — apparently more acceptable than airhorns — and waving flags.
The Dutch, of course, came decked head to toe in orange and cheered with a bit more of a "we know what's going to happen" attitude than the "yell for anything" Russians.
Indeed, the Dutch did know what was going to happen. The Netherlands pulled off a sweep in the event, Sven Kramer finishing first, Jan Blokhuijsen second and Jorrit Bergsma third.
The only thing that broke up that excitement was that band, which was trotted out during the Zamboni breaks that split up the event. It rocked to everything from Russian tunes to the Beatles, four cheerleaders ready for every song in each 10-minute set with a new dance.
You see a lot of things you don't expect at the Winter Olympics. No offense to the man with the horn, but the top of the list Saturday was definitely a Beatles rocking brass band from Mother Russia.