The Summer Olympics are a once-every-four-year spectacle made up of feats of impossible athleticism, accomplished by athletes who compete to be able to claim that actually, there’s not always someone out there who’s better than you. The pageantry, the patriotism, the hard bodies, and the soft journalism have made this year’s Summer Olympics a welcome diversion in the midst of a dry TV summer, and though this year’s Rio broadcast hasn’t quite lived up to London’s ratings in 2012, the Rio Games have outpaced the 2014 Winter Games at Sochi, as expected.
The habitual underperformance of the Winter Games has been accepted by the American people, maybe because the Summer Olympics have made stars out of Americans like Michael Phelps, Simone Biles, and Katie Ledecky. By contrast, the biggest stars of the Winter Olympics are your local prep school weed dealers Bode Miller and Shaun White. If gymnastics gave America the Fab Five, figure skating gave America Tonya Harding and endless years of waiting for a Michelle Kwan gold medal that never came. But in the case of the Winter Games, winning is overrated. The real joy of the Winter Olympics is through the lunatic combination of the heartwarming inspiration of the Summer Games with the chilling terror of a practical effects horror movie since their inception in 1924. All due respect to the athletes in Rio, but you can catch me in 2018 America. I only want to watch the Olympics when I have to ask the question, “Am I watching a sport or am I watching a death-defying stunt that requires an obscene amount of physical control to avoid what would otherwise be an almost certain trip to the mortuary?”
If the Summer Olympics are a parade of raw athleticism, the Winter Olympics are a parade of raw flesh and broken bones. A gymnast like Aly Raisman can draw headlines through even the mere suggestion of an accident, but when there’s an accident in the Winter Games, it’s just another day in the alpine skiing tournament. Summer Olympics athletes fight not to lose; Winter Olympics athletes fight not to lose only after they’ve won the battle not to die.
The last person killed in an Olympic Games was Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili in a training run at the 2010 Vancouver games. Kumaritashvili came from a family of lugers; he had been competing for two years as a luger, but faced with an especially challenging curve in the Vancouver course, Kumaritashvili lost control of his sled and crashed while racing at an approximately 90 miles per hour speed. There are two other sports that use the same death track as luge: skeleton, which presumably got its name because it’s luging face-first, and bobsledding, which were proven to be crash-prone by Cool Runnings.
But it’s not only the bobsled-track events that make the Winter Olympics a circus of impending death. Just this year, Hollywood hopped on the inspirational story of ski jumper Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards, proving you don’t have to win to be a hero — all you have to do to be a hero is hurdle hundreds of feet through open air to what should be your death and not die. We all learned from the tragedy of Natasha Richardson that even the most minor skiing accident can prove fatal — now imagine the danger of crashing down the most difficult tracks in the world while pushing speed limits that would be illegal on most highways. World champion giant slalom skiers regularly flop down the mountain like ragdolls, meanwhile downhill skiers have died at the Olympics slamming into trees like Ross Milne on hyperdrive. Olympic speed skating is sometimes known as Nascar on ice, owing to the speed of the sport, the design of the course, and, assumedly, the likelihood of crashing. Speed skaters race at speeds up to 40 miles per hour with skates as sharp as razor blades on their feet, and the only thing protecting them from slicing their limbs off during their frequent course collisions are the suits they wear, which are made from cut-resistant kevlar. And while no ice hockey players have ever died in the course of an Olympic game, professional hockey players have died owing to injuries incurred on the ice as recently as 2013, when Russian pro Dmitri Uchaykin was killed after a legal hit from an opposing team caused a fatal cerebral hemorrhage.
Who among us looks at the flailing arms and ski-shackled legs of cross-country skiers and doesn’t think, “...god, that sport would make my heart combust…”? Who can bear to watch aerial skiing through more than three fingers for fear that the sport will claim one of its athletes thanks to its harebrained combination of gymnastic acrobatics and landing on ice? Who doesn’t get a secondhand workout from the sympathy adrenaline that rushes through your veins while watching ski jumpers fly off the ramps?
On the rare occasions when the Winter Olympics aren’t thrilling us with the suggestion of barely avoided and easily imagined death, they waste no time with filler events, moving spectators straight from pure terror to pure delight. The only Winter Olympic sports for which there is no direct precedent for death are the figure-skating events and curling. Figure skating is a magnificent art form made up of competitively bad music choices, frilly costumes, and triple axle twists that provide a physical demonstration of the incorruptible laws of physics. And curling is curling. That ice bocce exists as a sport at all, let alone an Olympic sport, makes the Winter Olympics worth waiting four years to see.
Of course, it would be wrong to pretend that the Summer Olympics don’t feature their own opportunities for terrible life-ending tragedy. Of all the Summer Olympic sports, the one that inspires the most bone-crushing terror is diving, as mere fractions of an inch might be all that separates a gold medal from a horrible death by head trauma — as was met by Georgian diver Sergei Chalibashvili in 1983 and nearly met by eventual American gold medalist Greg Louganis in 1988. Gymnastics could also probably kill you at the Summer Olympics if you missed the dismount on the vault, though changes made to the springboard have made vaulting safer over the years. But summer sports don’t openly wave their fists at the heavens in defiance of the laws of god and man the way winter sports do. If our athletes make our modern myths, Icarus was probably a ski jumper.