I find, paging through Olympics history, that I recognize a much higher proportion of the figure skaters than any other athletes. They must get their post-games publicity in places I actually pay some attention to. I couldn't identify any of the luge team if you paid me.

Most of the other competitors, I only remember if they were in the news for being an Olympic athlete and something else. Carl Lewis and Jackie Joyner-Kersee, I recognize mainly because I went through the public school system in Arizona, and apparently they are too lazy to notice that there are actually a lot of athletes that are not pasty white. Jesse Owens is famous for embarrassing Nazi Germany in 1936 by generally not being an inferior specimen.

More recently, Michael Phelps made headlines for admitting he'd tried marijuana, right up until the point where everyone realized he wasn't actually high at the Olympics, and then it wasn't interesting anymore. I have a vague recollection of someone named Picabo Street who I think is a skier, mainly because she did ads for Mountain Dew and either Chapstick or Carmex.

(Amusing note: They didn't remember to put THC on the list of banned substances until after the 1998 Winter Olympics, where snowboarding debuted as an Olympic sport, and the gold medalist promptly tested positive for cannabis. The impressive part isn't that he won like that -- anyone who knows any actual snowboarders could have called that one -- but that he managed to get a hold of any weed in the first place. The 1998 Winter games were held in Japan, a country so famously intolerant of drugs that they once went to the trouble of arresting Paul McCartney for pot possession, and had a good long serious think about whether they were going to let Robert Downey Jr in for the Iron Man premiere.)

I recognize a lot of the figure skaters by name as being figure skaters, even those who were before my time, by a little (Dorothy Hamill, Peggy Fleming) or a lot (Sonja Henie). Of course, some of them are conveniently named things like "Elvis Stojko", an unexpected sequence of letters that will be lodged in my brain until a skilled pathologist dissects them out at autopsy.

(Trying to figure out where some of these people are from is an interesting exercise in world history. The European part of the scoreboard got turned completely upside down from '89-'91. In 1988, Katarina Witt won gold for East Germany, a country which no longer exists; in 1994, Oksana Baiul, who would have been born in the USSR, won gold for Ukraine. Viktor Petrenko took his 1992 gold on behalf of the Unified Team, a one-off band of athletes from former Soviet republics who basically went to the International Olympics Committee and went, "Yes, well, we had a country, but, er..."

The IOC wasn't immune, either. The odd 2-year gap between the '92 and '94 games was due to a 1992 rule patch. They'd already given up on having the Summer and Winter Olympics hosted in the same city, on the grounds that no one was that eager to bankrupt themselves; they finally caved and shifted the 4-year Winter cycle halfway, so that everyone wasn't attempting to scrape together media coverage, manpower, and money, all at the same time.)

The Sonja Henie clip is enlightening. That represented a demonstration of Olympic skating in 1928. Much of what she does is recognizable as the antecedent of the various required figures today; she does an identifiable broken-leg sit spin, a basic scratch spin, and a basic two-foot spin. Camels and catchfoot stuff hadn't been invented yet -- although she does do something that looks a little like a backward spiral -- and there is not yet enough dance influence in the sport for her to lose points for not keeping her back and legs straight, which is interesting, because there are an awful lot of figure skaters today who could double as ironing boards in a pinch.

She does something that looks like... half an Axel? On the wrong feet? Going the wrong way? Frankly, I don't know; I've been watching this stuff for hours now and I still have no idea what the Wikipedia article is talking about half the time. She comes in backwards on a right outside edge, whacks the ice with her left toe pick, does a 180 in the air, and lands going forward on a left inside edge. And she goes clockwise, which looks weird, because for no apparent reason everyone has now unanimously agreed that jumps go counterclockwise or else.

It's also interesting to realize there are a variety of national and individual styles. The Russians and former Soviet states almost always have a heavy ballet influence -- Baiul spends so much time mincing around on her toe picks I would bet money she was a ballerina before or during her skating career. Stojko appears to just generally be slightly nuts, and is one of the few men who does more screwing around with fancy footwork than the women. Weir has apparently spent much time getting bitched at for skating "like a girl", which strictly speaking he doesn't -- he does all of his flashy jumps according to the men's singles requirements, which are different than the women's singles. (The number and/or difficulty of some of the required jumps have apparently been adjusted upwards; to be fair, the men also don't get to score points with some of the less strength-based tricks, and the women do.) He skates like a modern dancer, who is aware that he does actually have joints in his torso, which is a background likely shared by more of the women than the men.

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