by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

CALGARY, Alberta — I am standing in snow. My feet are numb. My nose is leaking down my face. You are in an easy chair, wearing fuzzy socks.

We are both experiencing the Winter Olympics.

I am the journalist.


Let the Games begin! Wow! Just saying it gives me chills, although, with any luck, they will go away by spring. Maybe my jaw will defrost by then. Gold medals? Silver medals? Victory? Defeat? The triple salchow? Yes. Well. Easy for you to say.

I am here to say something else. I am here to clear up a myth. Before we even deal with who will win what (they will, we won’t) let me say this: The Winter Olympics are the most awesome, glorious, breathtaking event to watch on television, and the most idiotic thing to cover in person. Unless you are a penguin.

Consider this: the men’s downhill. A big event, right? Very fast. Very exciting. Of course, the TV guys — who bring the sport to your living room — get to watch from a nice warm booth, with a dozen screens at their fingertips. The rest of us stand at the bottom of the mountain, gazing skyward, not unlike the children of Israel waiting for Moses to come down.


ANNOUNCER: Here comes Sven Svedish, and ooh, he’s rocketing!

ANALYST: He sure is, Jim. Look at that turn around the gate.

ANNOUNCER: The replay is in the corner of your screen, folks.

ANALYST: And now he’s into the stretch!

ANNOUNCER: The time to beat is on the left!

ANALYST: He might do it, Jim!

ANNOUNCER: Oh, boy! Go, Sven!


REPORTER 1: You see anything yet?

REPORTER 2: Nuh-uh.

REPORTER 1: My feet are frozen.

REPORTER 2: Mine, too.



REPORTER 2: Wanna get a hot chocolate?


Now. I know what you’re saying. Come on, fella, not every sport is outdoors. True. Even if you forget about Alpine skiing, cross-country skiing, bobsled, luge, ski jumping, biathlon, and Nordic combined (and some of us would like to forget them all), there is always hockey, speed skating and, of course, figure skating, a dangerous sport in which competitors often suffer fatal encounters with their eye shadow. You can take your coat off to report on these events. Unfortunately, we journalists still suffer the same Olympic disease that afflicts every American citizen except 50 people in Vermont, which can be summed up in the following sentence: What the hell are we watching?


ANALYST: A nice triple salchow. Oooh. Pretty. Now the axel. She hit that beautifully.

ANNOUNCER: Let’s watch it again.

ANALYST: Yes, let’s. Here you see the lift, the turn, and now watch, she’s going for the double Lutz!

ANNOUNCER: Oh, boy! The double Lutz!


REPORTER 1: Who’s this?

REPORTER 2: I dunno.

REPORTER 1: What was that?

REPORTER 2: A salt chow, or something.

REPORTER 1: Was she supposed to fall like that?

REPORTER 2: I dunno.

REPORTER 1: Wanna get a hot chocolate?


But enough. We’re losing track of the most important question here, which, contrary to popular belief, is not how do you tell an Alpine skier from a Nordic skier? (The answer is: Alpine skiers wear outfits that glow in the dark, especially the parts with names of their SPONSORS. The Nordic skiers, meanwhile, all look like Grizzly Adams, including some of the women.)

But forget that stuff. The most important question here is: HOW COLD IS IT?

This is the first thing anyone asks when you call the office. “So,” they say, “how cold is it?” And I will answer. Pretty damn cold. Like, my teeth just fell out. Like, my knees are playing “Wipeout.” Like 50 below zero
(which is 5-below Canadian). Pretty damn cold. Unless, of course, we are hit with: THE CHINOOKS.


Now, most of you have never heard of the Chinooks. I, personally, had never heard of them, either, until the bus driver who picked us up at the airport, where the weather reminded me of the movie “Ice Station Zebra” (and, come to think of it, so did the scenery) said: “Don’t worry, tomorrow we’ll get the Chinooks.”

Not me, I said. I had my shots.

I have since found out, however, that Chinooks are extremely warm winds, which suddenly and without warning can whip through this town and turn every deli sandwich into a tuna melt. At least if you believe the locals.

“I’ve seen the temperature go from 20 below to 60 above in four hours,” one will tell you of the Chinooks.

“Oh, yeah? I’ve seen it go from 30 below to 90 above in 20 minutes,” another will say.

Then they go into the street and slap each other with their cowboy hats.

Which is another thing I have to mention. Calgary is a cowboy town, a saddle and Stetson town, a place where they grab you at the airport, scream
“HOWDY!” then stamp your hand with a rubber brand, like a cow. Ride ’em, Pancho.

But wait. More about these Chinooks. The first one came Wednesday night. By Thursday morning, I saw cars floating down the street. The downhill should be a blast in this stuff.

Then again the Chinooks could go away, leaving us frigid once more. By the way, there is a legend: an ancient Canadian cowboy rode into town one snowy night, tied his horse to a post and went to sleep in his tent. When he emerged the following morning, the Chinooks had struck, and, lo and behold, the horse was hanging from a church steeple, which the cowboy had thought was a post, until all the snow melted.

That’s a pretty sick story. But it’s the kind of thing you expect when the Olympics come to a town where they still have Esso stations.

Athletes? Did someone say athletes? Yes. We have athletes. All the regulars: the Swiss ski heroes (who make Robert Redford look like the one they threw back) and the Russian ice dancers and the East German bobsledders and the Swedish cross-country stars. As usual, the United States has two big-name figure skaters going for gold, Debi Thomas and Brian Boitano, both of whom are hoping for a brighter future than 80 nights skating with Mickey Mouse.

But, for the most part, the United States will not dominate these games. It will be lucky to finish fourth in total medals. Which is OK. For starters, we can’t win everything. Besides, we win big at the Summer Games, which are more traditional. After all, the Olympics date back to ancient Greece, where athletes competed in the nude. You can bet they weren’t ski jumping.

No, Pancho. The fact is the Winter Olympics are pretty much an add-on to the Summer Games, a nice diversion, full of glitter and glide, hope and glory, all the gold and silver and bronze, but, unlike the summer edition, basically a friendly affair. When was the last Winter Olympic boycott, anyhow?

So throw a log on the fire, grab that mug of hot chocolate and sit back in that easy chair while the rest us up here watch our lips turn the color of plums. What the heck! We are here to have fun.

And I can prove it: Just a few days ago a shipment of 60,000 panchos arrived from Taiwan. They were to be given out at the Opening Ceremonies, so that every spectator would wear a certain color pancho, depending on his seat, and the result would be a stadium backdrop that, from above, looked like all the flags of the competing nations.

Nice. Only there was one problem: The Taiwanese mistakenly put a Coca-Cola crest on the outside of each pancho. They were supposed to put it inside. Having it outside violates the International Olympic Committee’s ban on commercialization at events.

So what to do? Simple. A dozen inmates at a Calgary prison are now working around the clock, even as we speak, frantically turning the 60,000 panchos inside out.

I call that fun. I call that significant. Whatever else happens at these XV Winter Olympics, at least we begin facing the right direction.


The flatlands east of the Canadian Rockies sometimesexperience a dry, warm wind from the west known as the Chinook.During the Winter Olympics, a Chinook could cause a riseof up to 45 degrees Fahrenheit, enough to thaw ski slopesand outdoor ice.

Three conditions combine to form a Chinook: astrong wind from the Pacific,

heavy precipitation on theCanadian west coast and a weakening of the cold air massthat normally sits east of the Rockies.

Normal weather pattern:

Light west, light rain or snow on coast

Wind passes over cold air sitting on the plains.

Chinook weather pattern:

Strong west wind drops humidity in coastal rain storms

Dry air warms as it drops in altitude; characteristic arch- shaped cloud forms.

CUTLINE: The view from atop the 70-meter ski jump.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

New book, The Little Liar, arrives November 14. Get the details »

Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

Subscribe for bonus content and giveaways!