Curling excites fans at midnight

Chris Marshall

Every four years the Winter Olympics roll around and casual sports fans scoff at the notion of watching men ice dance in glitter and women sweep ice in curling.

Like the NHL and X Games competitors, all these athletes do is cut into SportsCenter’s basketball coverage. And it’s not even the real Olympics, more like the Summer Olympics without athletes.

But then a funny thing happens once these die-hard sports fans, or anyone for that matter, catch a glimpse of the Winter games on TV, they’re hooked immediately.

It starts when they flip to NBC trying to find “The Office,” or when they turn on MSNBC to find…whatever it is that MSNBC televises. Instead of watching what they originally tuned in for, viewers catch a glimpse of athletes sliding around in the snow or flying around the ice in sweet, one-piece uniforms. These people appear to be having a genuinely good time as they frolic in the winter weather, and that’s just one of the reasons why the Olympics are so impossible to turn off.

Another is how easy it is to turn on. At almost any given time during the day, games are being played on at least one channel. That’s the same recipe for success seen in March Madness and the World Cup. It’s 11 a.m.? There’s a game on. Midnight? There’s still a game on.

The accessibility of televised Olympic contests makes even the least popular sports watchable. People don’t tune into professional hockey, if for no other reason, because they couldn’t find it on TV if they wanted to. Anybody who’s ever been to a RoadRunners game knows hockey has one of the most unique atmospheres in sports, but watching an NHL game at home just doesn’t compare to the thrill of cheering for fights and dropping “Mighty Ducks” references at the arena.

Occasionally, VERSUS will show a game, but how many people are really going to venture into the mid-200 channels to watch two Canadian teams play an inconsequential hockey game? In the Olympics, not only are games shown on basic cable, there’s also a lot more at stake when Sidney Crosby is leading Team Canada instead of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

That brings up another selling point of the Olympics: the national pride. When the United States is competing, the excitement increases tenfold. We’re the best at eating hot dogs, war, driving and making reality shows and we want to be the best at playing sports in the snow, too. There’s nothing better than watching a United States athlete with a gun strapped to his back ski past a Swiss athlete with a gun strapped to his back and saying to your TV, “Ha! Where’s your Swiss army knife now?”

In addition to blatant displays of ethnocentrism, Americans are also given a reason to watch when they see a familiar name pop up. It doesn’t happen often in the Winter games, but when it does, it’s like running into a friend from high school who you haven’t seen in four years. Apolo Anton Ohno, Lindsey Jacobellis and Shaun White all won medals at the last Olympics, but just like that friend from high school, you probably haven’t heard from them unless you’ve been creeping on Facebook.

There’s a sense of familiarity once “that guy with the soul patch” is competing on TV for the first time since 2006, and cheering “Ohno” is a good thing again. What’s best of all is when he backs up his celebrity-once-every-four-years status and skates almost effortlessly through another medal-winning performance.

The wait between Winter Olympics isn’t quite as lengthy as the search for a soul mate, but the four-year delay between soul patch sightings is long enough that the games should be appreciated. In two weeks, NBC’s daytime dramas and syndicated sitcoms will return and sports fans can go back to their usual channel rotation of ESPN and ESPN2 just in time for March, but for now enjoy the games while they last. Even if it’s male figure skating.