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From Sochi Olympics, with daring and durability

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The opening ceremony of the 22nd Winter Olympics at Sochi contained the usual sparkle and technical wonders we have to come to expect from such quadrennial events. But there was also the sense that Russia was straining to impress the world with its culture and history. The operative word is “straining” because, by any criterion, Russia has given the world much in the Sciences and the Arts and every field in between. Still, subtlety in suggesting greatness goes further and deeper than loudly advertising the facts.

No matter. For several hours on Friday, February 7, we forgot problems and found solace in the soaring pageantry of humans and the human spirit. Viewers in America (though not in Russia) saw the fifth snowflake refusing to form the Olympic Ring but that malfunction made the ceremony touching and strangely redeeming. Flawless can seem impersonal and intimidating. A small flaw only accentuates the nobility of the human enterprise.

One inclusion in the names of Russians who made lasting contributions to the Arts and the Sciences that viewers witnessed in the opening minutes of the opening ceremony at Sochi was Nabokov. In some of the reactionary literary circles of Russia, Vladimir Nabokov was often depicted as a decadent writer. For the writer who asserted, “There is no science without fancy and no art without fact,” inclusion with Dostoevsky and Chekhov was a welcome sign of acceptance for the author of Lolita and Pale Fire.

In the first two days of the 18-day competition, there have already been stirring stories of daring and age-defying feats.

First came the breakthrough for the go-for-broke 20-year-old American Sage Kotsenburg. Snowboarding is certainly not for the faint of heart. Just watching those impossible doodles and twizzles in the air can make one dizzy.

Kotsenburg was the underdog to Norway’s Staale Sandbech (silver) and Canada’s Mark McMorris (bronze). But one thing he had over his competitors was his creativity. Translation: Do something impossible or something you never tried before to differentiate yourself from the rest. After all, what have you to lose, other than a slot on the podium?

And that’s what the “sage” did. Kotsenburg executed what is called a “1620 Japan Air Mute Grab” while grabbing the back of his snowboard, a trick he never even tried in practice. What does “1620” mean? That’s 4 ½ complete spins. Each complete spin is 3600. 4 ½ times 360 is … that’s right, 1620. As for Japan and Air Mute and Grab … really, who cares, other than to know that maybe just 3 or 4 out of the world’s population of 7 billion can even attempt it!

But that wasn’t all. Three months ago, Kotsenburg invented a jump that he called “Holy Crail.” (Good grief, this guy also has a sense of humor!) “I had no idea I’d do it until three minutes before I jumped,” he said.

So it happened that the first gold medal of the Sochi Olympics was won by a free spirit (Kotsenburg was chewing gum during his breathtaking aerial wizardry) who believed in himself and who dared the impossible. Sure, he could have landed on his back and broken his ribs. His courage could have been his undoing. But he reached for the stars and became a star himself along the way.

The other who captured the imagination was Norway’s Einar Bjoerndalen who won the biathlon 10-kilometer sprint. This was his 7th Olympic gold medal. He began competing in the Olympics in Lillehammer (1994) and kept at it at in Nagano (1998), Salt Lake City (2002), Turin (2006), Vancouver (2010) and now, Sochi. Together with his 4 Olympic silver medals and 1 bronze medal, his haul comes to 12, equaling his fellow countryman Bjoern Daehlie’s record. Einar can overtake Daehlie’s record as Norway is the favorite in both the men’s and the mixed relay competition.

As if that was not enough, Einar has also become the oldest Winter Olympic individual gold medalist at 40!
There will certainly be more stirring and stunning stories of will power and athletic brilliance coming out of the Sochi Olympics. But we already have two athletes whose feats of daring and durability will continue to inspire us long after the Olympic flame is extinguished.

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