The model for all sports coverage remains the old ABC Wide World of Sports. It was a tinier sports aquarium then, but in some ways a more multidisciplinary one because on any given Saturday you could turn on the television and have absolutely no clue what you were getting. One Saturday it might be a powerlifting meet, and then next, the vine jumpers of Vanuatu. And then the next would be 24 hours at Le Mans. What it lacked in instant gratification, the Wide World Of Sports made up for in scope. You may not have thought you needed to watch a whole hour on the Iditarod, but by the time you were done Jim McKay had made it very clear to you that you did.
One weekend early in my childhood my father gestured hurriedly from the couch. Jim McKay was narrating "The Greatest Moment of the Olympics," and something had my father excited enough to wake up from the half-coma, half-attentive state he usually spent Saturday afternoons passing in and out of in front of the TV.
"You need to watch this." And I did.
That is Franz Klammer's gold medal-winning run at the 1976 Olympics, a full hellborne run downhill into the jaws of certain death and still one of the most mindbending sports-related events I have ever seen. Klammer almost dies on that run on several occasions with little more than the modern equivalent of a moped helmet, a millimeter of yellow body suit, and happy thoughts separating him from certain doom. My father treated it with a reverence he did not pay to clergy, sunsets, or fresh newborn babies.
You need no commentary to appreciate this, either: a moment like Klammer's suicide run to gold in Innsbruck requires a ticking clock, a time to beat, a man willing to skate down the devil's spine with skates made of razor blades, and your open eyeballs. It is as simple as the Kentucky Derby, and unless you're prone to gambling on international ski competitions, much less costly. It is the appeal of the Olympics, a series of events whose complexities can be explained in a few minutes at most, and whose appeal lies in their cyclical abundance. You only get them once every two years in any form, and only once every four by season.
So let us then take issue with Will Leitch here. Harumph, we say sir. Harumph!
But the Olympics are full of weird sports we’d never even notice otherwise. And being a hard-core sports fan is about being an obsessive. Following a sport year-round, and not just ducking your head in once every four years, is the whole point.
Au contraire: if you're the sort of puritan who believes in that kind of monomaniacal infidelity to a sport, then sure. But that assumes one kind of sports fan. A doting, faithful fan whose eggs of loyalty lie in one basket, a basket that in the case of Will bears the logo of the St. Louis Cardinals. Your loves are trademarked, and every second away from them is a moment of longing abandon looking back toward them.
Good for you. I have my own faith, too: Florida football. Unfortunately, she's only around five months of the year at best, and a man like any man has serious needs. For seven months these eyes wander in search of spectacle, especially heart-stopping, violent, and often dangerous spectacle. Thus the appeal of the Olympics, and especially the World Cup—the stunning Brazilian in the short skirt that almost gets us fired every four years—which forces us to abandon home, family, and common sense in the name of soccer and incoherent international hullabaloo.
The same applies to MMA, or the Triple Crown, or to March Madness, the NBA playoffs, or to any ridiculousness that catches the eye and can reasonably be called sport. Which is why I'll be the one watching men betting on the first raindrop down the windowpane on ESPN 17 in ten years in April. For me, fandom can be ducking your head in every four years, because while life is not long it is certainly very wide, and covering that span is worth the effort.
In the 2002 World Cup, Irish fans would take unassuming Japanese fans en route to games on subway trains, claim them by painting them green and getting them drunk, and thus unofficially expand the Republic of Ireland by a few tens of plastered Japanese immigrants for three hours. That is fandom at its finest: a club expanded, an inclusion of those loyal to the spectacle first, and the colors second. I'd watch football if the teams were sponsored by AIDS and Satan. Heck, I watched some of the Pro Bowl last night and those weren't even real all-stars or teams.
If Will's concept of the fan is a picture of single-minded purity, then let me be the one who stands up for the sluts in the room. We have rights. We have passion. We have liquor and plane tickets. We'll show up to any party, be it curling, or soccer, or a bare-knuckle boxing match in the backyard of a house in Overtown Miami. And wherever we are, we will seize the sporting day by the throat until it gives us what we want: spectacle.
It's what Franz Klammer would do in a yellow jumpsuit at 70 miles an hour and a hiccup from death. And if that's not good enough for you, then the uxorious sports husbands' line is right over there. And I still think about Franz Klammer, Will, because a thing of beauty never dies, and as far as I'm concerned, that 1976 Innsbruck run is good until the end of time.