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Musing on the Winter Olympics: Why We Watch and the Lack of Penn State Connections

by on February 13, 2018 5:00 AM

A bit of a confession here:  Right before that big football game on Feb. 4, I upgraded our family-room television. The old “big-screen” was about a decade old, pricing had dropped and, well, what better excuse to spend your entertainment dollar than unbridled violence interrupted by committee meetings?

Then this past weekend my wife and I found ourselves alone with the new 65-inch gargantuan screen (no young adults around!) and were excited about the potential of watching a show or movie we wanted to watch. Except, we couldn’t find anything to watch. Yes, we’ve been hearing that comment from the masses for years – hundreds of channels but nothing on.

It reminded me how easy it used to be in the “old days.” As a kid I was one of the lucky ones in that as long as I can remember I’ve always had cable. Growing up we had 12 channels to choose from – channels 2 through 13, but almost all viewing was confined to six channels. The major broadcast networks – ABC, CBS and NBC – came from stations in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, then we had a PBS station, and two stations from New York City. The New York City stations were great if you were a Mets, Yankees, Knicks or Rangers fan. Mostly the one NYC channel was wonderful for Abbott and Costello movies every Sunday.

The point being, of course, you had what you had and you watched it. Then you went to school and shared your experience watching it because we all watched the same shows since they were the only shows on.

However that night this past weekend, my wife and I were finally able to find an acceptable viewing option. We discovered we are currently in the midst of one of those quadrennial multi-day spectacles when most everyone in the country turns on their televisions and watches people doing things we would otherwise never pay any attention to, and certainly not sit down and gape at for anything longer than a few seconds. No, I’m not talking about the Democratic or Republican conventions.

It’s the Winter Olympics, that planet-wide display of heart-rending nationalistic fervor.

Why, we could watch women cross-country-skiing with a rifle strapped to their back, stopping every now-and-then to shoot at holes some distance away, and, when finished, flopping forward onto the snow. Or people sliding very large circular stones on ice. The stones are flat on one side, have a handle on the other, and are used in a contest that appears similar to shuffleboard with a round target. Or we could watch men launch themselves down an ice track lying face up on a sled – certainly not the way we went sledding as kids.

And we will watch these things which we normally wouldn’t bother to click on if they showed up in our browser windows during an insomnia-induced 3 a.m. web-surfing frenzy. We watch them because it’s the patriotic thing to do. Because these people are competing for their countries, and most importantly some are competing for the United States of America. And as Americans we want to win. Or at least be brought to tears with a heartfelt story of triumph over adversity. It’s who we are.

So we watch.

From a nationalistic standpoint we watch in the hope that individuals and pairs and teams from the United States win, and that our country brings home the most medals overall -- something we’ve become very accustomed to in the Summer Olympics where the U.S. has brought home the most medals of any country for the last six Olympics in a row. You have to go back to 1992 when the “Unified Team” (ex-USSR countries) won the most medals overall – meaning if you are younger than 30 you likely recall nothing but American dominance in the Summer Olympics

These are the Winter Olympics though. Only twice in the 22 previous Winter Olympics has the United States finished with the most medals overall -- 1932 and 2010.

Since I am a Happy Valley and Penn State homer, and this is a Happy Valley and Penn State-centric website, I wondered how much of a connection Penn State has to the competitors in these Winter Olympic Games. Is there a Penn Stater competing? We all know the names of plenty of Penn Staters who competed in the Summer Olympics in Rio – more than 20 in all – such as Nicole Fawcett, Alisha Glass, Christa (Harmotto) Dietzen, Megan (Hodge) Easy, Ali Krieger, Frank Molinaro and Alyssa Naeher. And there have been many more in the years past.

But not a single Penn Stater in South Korea.

In fact, if my research is correct, only three Penn Staters have ever competed in the Winter Olympics -  Kurt Oppelt in Figure Skating and Edgar Seymour in bobsled back in the 1950’s, and more recently Allison Baver in short track speedskating.

So what’s the deal?

Here’s the deal. The NCAA has 24 sports – many of which have both women’s and men’s teams and some have mixed teams. Of those NCAA sports only three – women’s and men’s ice hockey, and skiing – are contested at the Winter Olympics. Most of the rest – except for American football, bowling and lacrosse – are contested at the Summer Olympics. So if you are a Division I collegiate athlete looking forward to representing your country, chances are very good you’ll be doing it at the Summer Games.

The pipeline that supports the United States success in the Summer Games just doesn’t exist for the Winter games. The U.S. Collegiate Ski and Snowboard Association is doing what it can – a shout-out to the Penn State ski team for winning the Allegheny Conference this season – and unless the NCAA starts convincing more colleges besides Utah, Colorado, Denver and Vermont to move to D-1 and start or expand skiing teams, we’ll just have to sit back and enjoy Norway kicking our collective butt every four years.

Oh those Vikings.


John Hook is the president of The Hook Group, a local management consulting firm, and active in several nonprofit organizations. Previously John spent 25 years in executive, management and marketing positions with regional and national firms. John lives in Ferguson Township with his wife Jackie and their two children.
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