After eighteen days of an unrelenting stream of sports cliches offered by NBC-TV’s expert panels of people who used to ski, jump, slalom, skate (with or without a puck), snowboard (with or without an attitude), ice dance, race, skeleton, bobsled, luge or curl, the XXIII Winter Olympics are just hours away from a Closing Ceremony that will feature Fergie performing a medley of national anthems from each of the 92 countries represented in the 2018 games.
It promises to be a disproportionately international embarrassment (made worse by the scheduled appearance of Ivanka and her daddy’s liar-person, both of whom will offer commentaries on Johnny Weir’s hairstyles) that will last interminably into the wee hours of South Korea Time the following Tuesday. The event will serve to sound the death knell of a career of somebody I’d never heard of until the morning after the NBA All-Star game. (I’ve since learned that Fergie began her career as the lead singer of the much-loved lite-metal band, the Spotted Cranberry Beans. Okay, I made that up.)
More than half of my Facebook friends are professional musicians and their comments about her rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” last Sunday night ran the gamut of critical assessment from “WTF was that” to “WTF was that.” It should be noted that neither comment was posed as an actual question, but more as an expression of disbelieving astonishment, as in “WTF was that.” It should also be noted that many of those same people chose to mention Colin Kaepernick in a very positive way. It should be further noted that it takes a lot to make LeBron James blush.
Since I have none of my own to speak of, I admire many of the athletic endeavors of others, and I draw a lot of personal inspiration from the athletes’ spirit, dedication, hard work and achievement in their chosen activities. I try to incorporate at least some of that spirit into my own life, going for the Gold, as it were, with such unbridled enthusiasm that at 2 a.m. at the end of the very first night of what would grow to nearly 700 hours of broadcasting the sport of curling I actually leaped from the comfort of my naugahyde Barcalounger in an impressively athletic way and strode proudly across the room to turn off the television manually.
“No more remote control for me!” I shouted at the top of my one-and-a-half lungs, enthusiastically pushing buttons along the bottom of the screen I’d never pushed before and thrusting my clenched fist defiantly against the advancing of age and its attendant feebleness. It scared the dog.
We missed the Opening Ceremonies and the next two broadcast days because when you override the remote, I learned, you have to have the whole television-watching apparatus-thing-a-ma-jig re-programmed by a 13-year-old with an advanced degree from Stanford or MIT. They are not easy to find, especially in Montana, and they charge almost as much as plumbers.
But since we’re on the subject, let’s talk about curling. Has there ever been so dumb a sport that is at the same time so completely mesmerizing?
“Probably not” is the short answer, although “No” is an even shorter answer.
Curling is shuffleboard for the mobile; chess for those who know nothing about chess; bocce for those who can’t buy into the idea of wearing a beret, drinking Chianti and gently lobbing balls down a narrow lawn.
Curling was invented by the Scots (Gaelic for “people from Scotland”) in 1511 when an Abbot named Alban (Gaelic for “rock”) was building a lakeside summer cottage and wanted some rocks from the other side of the lake to use as part of his landscape design. After sinking several birch-bark canoes trying to move the rocks across the lake, Abbot Alban decided to wait until winter when the lake would freeze over and local druids could drag the rocks across the ice, despite their not having any ropes.
Despite the ashy gray quilted smocks they wore, druids, in their own peculiar ways, were a fun-loving lot (many of whom left their ancestral homes to settle in Minnesota and foolishly open haggis processing plants) who decided that pushing the rocks would be more fun than pulling them, especially because they had no ropes. This was a slow and arduous process that led to humerus problems. But the druids that hadn’t immigrated illegally to the United States as taibhreamhs (Gaelic for “dreamers”) had absolutely nothing else to do, so what the hell, they put shoulder to stone and pushed rocks across the frozen lake.
“Albans for Alban!” they shouted in a gleeful, yet whisky-hoarse guttural version of English that by all rights can only be called “a language other than English.”
One day, one of them was salting some pickled herring he’d brought for lunch and spilled some of the kosher salt on the ice. As he swept it up, the ice suddenly smoothed and became slippery, and the rock slid quickly across the ice.
The other druids, who had yet to learn the kosher-salt-on-ice trick, noticed that their rock wasn’t moving as quickly, which enraged them and led to an on-ice fight with the other druids that became known as the Great Salted Herring Lake Massacre, an event that not only took rock-pushing to a competitive level that would become known as “curling,” but was a contributing factor in the creation of “ice hockey,” which is Gaelic for “fighting on ice with sticks.”
Curling took off like a rock and some four hundred years later, in 1924 to be exact, it was a medal sport at the Olympics in Chamonix, France. It returned seventy-four years later as a medal sport in Nagano, Japan, after Delta Air Lines located the sport’s only official rock–which had evolved into what appeared to be a spare tire from a 1959 Buick–in a baggage claim bay in Newark, New Jersey. Don’t ask.
It was a fortuitous moment in sports history because it resurrected a sport that its inventors, whom we have identified previously as the Scots, had forgotten about when Canadians became serious about curling and became dominant in its practice. As it turns out, the Scots, who don’t like the Canadians or their crappy whiskey and have insisted that Fidel Castro was Justin Trudeau’s real father, had busied themselves creating other athletic events such as golf, shinty, dry-hill skiing and the much-celebrated Highland Games, the latter of which is a festival that features music that defies description and dancing that is best described as athletic. It is an exhibition of a not-so-complex culture that could only belong to the Scots.
It seems that everybody’s favorite Highland Games activity, next to seeing how far they can stick their fingers in their ears without actually drawing blood whenever a band of besotted bagpipers march by, is the caber toss. A caber is basically a telephone pole with bark. The idea is for a burly, red-bearded Scottish athlete to put on his best plaid dress and a tam embroidered with his family’s coat-of-arms, hoist the pole into a vertical position and toss it into the air. What happens after that is anybody’s guess, but there are doctors in nearby tents to perform emergency hernia surgeries.
This, by the way, is a sport that is unique in that it has never been the inspiration for any other sport.
ALMOST AS INTERESTING AS INTENTIONAL pole-heaving is skiing on mats, another athletic invention of the Scots. The longest dry-ski slope in all of Europe just happens to be at the Midlothian Snowsports Centre where there is no snow, but where snowsports abound nonetheless. Basically, it is an outdoor, lighted year-round training facility with a brew pub and raw bar where athletes of all ages train on sloping runs made of synthetic matting that is misted with a lubricant to increase speed and “create a more realistic surface.”
“More realistic than what?” is the question that first springs to mind. “Why?” is the second one.
Mark Twain who, as Samuel Clemens, may or may not have been Scottish, noted that “golf is a good walk spoiled.”
Enough about golf.
And so now we turn our attentions to shinty, a sport of dubious origin and inexactness. It is a team sport played by teams of variously undetermined numbers of players on a field, or “pitch,” that measures somewhere between 140 to 170 yards long by 70 to 80 yards wide, or its metric equivalent. It doesn’t seem to really matter. The players have cane-like stick things they use to hit each other and to punish a leather-covered ball that measures in the neighborhood of half a tennis ball. It is stitched together with what appears to be razor blades.
While the reason for the sports’ existence seems unclear, the object of the game is to propel the constantly air-borne ball into a goal by any means, including clubbing your opponent, tripping your opponent and/or having Russian operatives collude against your opponent. The players wear no protective gear, which gives rise to the phrase “are you kidding me?” which is Gaelic for “are you kidding me?”
If and when the shinty pitch freezes, players don skates and continue the game.
And all of the above is the underlying reason why the Scots invented Scotch Whisky. Buíochas le Dia. (Gaelic for “Thanks be to God”).
Photography by Courtney A. Liska