Cross country skiing is not the easiest sell for American audiences.
For starters, we’re not very good at it, so unless you’re into Scandinavian success stories there isn’t much rooting interest. And then there’s the sport itself — a bunch of people skiing, but not really quickly down a giant hill. There are more exciting things out there, such as just about anything you can think of.
But believe it or not, cross country is turning out to be one of the most exciting things to watch in the first week at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
Part of the reason for this is NBC color commentator Chad Salmela, who I consider to be the breakout announcing star of these Games. His full-time job is cross country skiing coach at St. Scholastica College in Duluth, Minn., but his Gus Johnson-style enthusiasm behind the mic makes you stop and watch the TV screen no matter what you’re doing. It works perfectly alongside the measured baritone of play-by-play (ski-by-ski?) guy Al Trautwig, who keeps viewers aware of what’s happening while Salmela works into a high-pitched frenzy.
It also helps to have the actual races looking more like something you’d expect to see at Talladega than Sochi.
The men’s 1.8-kilometer sprint final was absolute madness. Sweden’s Emil Joenssen, clearly gassed from his previous three heats earlier in the day, simply appeared to give up halfway through the race. But fortune turned in his favor (who says quitters never win?) when three guys well in front of him wiped out going around a curve and went sliding into a sidewall. It was a Grade-A pileup, with one of the competitors skiing over another man’s body before biting the dust himself. Like the famous tortoise of Aesop’s Fables, Joenssen slowly and steadily moved his way to the finish line for the bronze medal, then promptly fell over in exhaustion.
And from another angle:
Hell, I could watch that all day.