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Citius, Altius, Frigidiores

Skeleton, the Olympic Games, and a searing hatred that unites us all

My favorite thing about the Winter Olympics is the way it generates elaborate performance rituals out of an understanding that cold weather makes you want to fucking die.

Consider: It’s snowing here as I write this. Big, soppy, arrogant flakes. I mean real Wall Street–jackass crystals; you can picture these guys getting bounced out of snowflake strip clubs, lurching in bellowing packs down snowflake city streets, snowflake ties flapping out of snowflake pockets. The governor’s sending out the National Guard. We’ve had a foot of this in the last 18 hours, with another few inches inbound whenever the vortex gets around to it. The air’s face-stingingly cold. The white glare is like what you imagine skulls see through their eye sockets. Shoveling this means tunneling down to the bedrock grime-carapace of old ice that hasn’t melted for weeks — because how could it — and that you can’t possibly hack loose. It’s never-ending. I keep saying stuff like, “I’m ready to throw myself face-first off a mountain.”

Now consider: skeleton, the Olympic sport in which you throw yourself face-first off a mountain.

In the same way that certain styles of dance simulate sex, the Winter Olympics simulates scraping one’s February-chapped nostrils against the surface of a Kleenex whose aloe content is useless and reaching out for the warm escape of death. It’s an art of failed suicide attempts. Think about this. There’s ski jumping, where you launch yourself off a massive ramp toward what I imagine as a rapidly-growing-less-and-less-distant tree line. There’s luge, where you carom down a kilometer-long water slide at 90 mph while lying supine on a bladed Frisbee. There’s pairs figure skating, where — maybe you’ve seen some of this — you gaze with open longing into the eyes of someone you love but can never be with, twirling and swooping your anguish until you both risk going up in a fatal (but toasty!) erotic fireball.1 People like to talk about how the Olympics is this shining symbol of human unity blah blah, and it’s all true, but only because nothing unites humanity faster than our shared desperation over the almost unbelievable attention to detail with which winter manages to suck.

Now, look, I realize there are people who think they like winter. There are people out there — God bless them — who look at a grimy parking-lot snow-butte and smile like the children that, on some level, they obviously are. So, please, don’t get me wrong here. If you belong to this tribe of joyous and simple folk,2 I’m not saying you can’t watch the Winter Olympics. Watch in good health! I’m just saying you can’t understand the Winter Olympics, because the heart of the Winter Olympics is a dark heart, and nothing brings it relief but proximity to the abyss.

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What does skeleton mean to me? I’ve been a professional skeleton journalist for quite some time now (last Tuesday), so naturally it’s a question I think about. I’ve filled my free time with skeleton videos; I’ve contemplated skeleton during my bleak snow-shoveling season. Among all sports competitions, the Winter Olympics has always had the highest quotient of “Why would anyone even think to try that??” events,3 but even in this field, skeleton stands out for its fusion of radical danger and senseless awesomeness. The real question might be: What would compel a person to dress up like the Earth’s realest Power Ranger and swan-dive down a frozen track at such screaming speeds that s/he experiences the same g-force as a Formula One driver?

To be a skeleton slider, what you do is, you take a steel-framed sled with metal blades and no steering mechanism. (Repeat: no steering mechanism.) You start at the top of the course. You sprint out on the ice pushing your sled in front of you. You are wearing, again, a skintight bodysuit and a Cobra Commander helmet.4 Once you have built up enough speed, you hurl yourself prone atop your sled, pinning your arms and legs to your side and stretching yourself out like a human ICBM. There are other things you could compare this shape to, I’m just saying. You can control the sled a little by sort of tilting your head and wiggling your feet, but from this point to the bottom of the track, your strategy is basically just to be the comet in your own imagination. You’ve probably seen some of the head-cam shots from Sochi in Olympics commercials. Personally, I am way more into the DIY GoPro footage you can dig up on YouTube, stuff like this:

Keep in mind, as you watch this, that the reason you can’t see this guy’s body is that it is all behind his face. Also keep in mind that the slider in this video tops out at around 110 kilometers per hour, a good 35 kph slower than the top racers are capable of traveling under the right conditions. It’s the difference between driving 68 on the highway and doing 90.

If sports are capable of meaning things, and I think that they are, then clearly skeleton means something extreme and ridiculous and possibly a little terrifying. Baseball is like a Robert Frost poem;5 skeleton is more like this performance art piece I once heard about in which a guy filled a pipe organ with flammable gas so that the church burned down as he played it. There’s been plenty of excitement in this year’s skeleton competition: the Irish slider who wiped out, only to recover his sled and finish the run; the top American man through two heats6 being a trim, put-together guy named (of course) John Daly; the tense race for gold on the women’s side between the United States’ Noelle Pikus-Pace and Britain’s Lizzy Yarnold, who combined to win every World Cup race this season. (No spoilers ahead of tonight’s prime-time coverage, but you could possibly look for a BBC feed if you want in-depth coverage of the outcome.) But maybe just because the racers are all sealed in behind those tuff, tuff helmets, I keep zooming out of the immediate action and trying to figure out what this game is trying to tell me.

The heart of the Winter Olympics is a dark heart, a person wrote 40 seconds ago, and nothing brings it relief but proximity to the abyss. Well, isn’t that the whole point of skeleton? That it’s abyss-proximate? No one actually dies sliding — OK, one person has, but it was in, I don’t know, Chamonix in 1933, and I think it was part of a Hitchcock movie — but try telling that to your adrenal glands. (Again: Picture yourself going 80 or so down the highway, only you are lying on your stomach, and you are not in a car.) Skeleton is the most direct and viscerally awesome confrontation with all the stuff the Winter Olympics is trying to confront — the sense that your environment is trying to kill you, the inevitability of catastrophe, the fact that ice is slippy. It looks like a death wish and comes out feeling like a type of niche heroism, albeit one in which “Lizzy is also very aerodynamic — she’s flat” counts as serious praise from a commentator.7

“The world is miserable, so throw yourself at it and see what happens” is not great advice across a range of situations, but it’s OK for mid-February, I think. My brain’s inner GoPro keeps doing these little skeleton runs when I close my eyes, tobogganing down the straightaways, banking high on the corners. And I’m not saying the athletes feel this way, because I know they don’t, but for me, when I get to the bottom, that’s when I start thinking about spring.

Filed Under: 2014 Winter Olympics, Brian Phillips, Sochi, Skeleton

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Brian Phillips is a staff writer for Grantland.

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