The Picasso Games


NBC will make sure there are touching storylines, besides what Bob Costas was up to after hours to get pink eye, at the Sochi Winter Olympic Games.

Your mom will undoubtedly call you about some plucky sponsored athlete who was left on the doorstep of an orphanage, terrorized by abusive coaches, overcame lefthandedness, ginger hair and mesothelioma to become the first female figure skater from Asbestostan.

You’ll get more awkward Lolo Jones virginity interviews leading your religious aunt to decry the haterz who keep reacting to her presence on TV in predictable columns.

Costas will have a soft-focus reminiscence about the tenor of the games during the Cold War, how they took on added meaning. The games will be humanized and you’ll undoubtedly empathize with some piece of effluent prepackaged and shoved down the time-delay pipe by our overlords at 30 Rock.

What more and more Americans won’t get, though, are the competitions themselves. The Winter Games are, by their very definition, exclusive.

With America’s demographic shift to the desert southwest and sunbelt (Vegas, Phoenix, Houston on the grow; Detroit, Cleveland, Milwaukee not so much), fewer and fewer people live in, or within driving distance of, actual winter.

Throw on top of that the outrageous cost of actually participating in any of these sports (A Vail-affiliated Lake Tahoe ski resort, Northstar California, raised its lift ticket prices by $35 between 2009-20014, from $79 to $114. Hockey gear, club dues and ice time can start at thousands per kid, and that’s mid-to-low end), and winter sports are an abstract concept for a growing portion of the American public.

Think of it like this: You understand astrophysics is a thing, but you’re aware of it only because Stephen Hawking talks like your old 2-XL toy and is culturally notable because of that fact.

“But,” you might say, “the Olympics are the realm of the obscure even during summer.”

True enough. When was the last time you had a rousing game of handball, or dropped the kids at steeplechase camp? But, unlike winter, most summer sports have roots in athletic pursuits we’ve all got a common background in. Running. Riding a bike. Swimming. Wrestling  …soccer, rowing, volleyball, tennis; these are all sports you probably ran into simply by dint of your high school PE coach’s job description requiring more of him than opening up the basketball cart and declaring “free gym.”

Winter sports, on the other hand, are nearly the exclusive domain of anti-populist pursuits.

Besides a cold-weather vacation or free skating day at the local rink when you and 300 other people amble counterclockwise half-skating and half-walking while abusing your tailbone to “Now That’s What I Call Music 17!,” when’s the last time the first ten people you can think of ice skated? Have you ever seen a skeleton/bobsled track? (Cool Runnings doesn’t count.)

Skiing and snowboarding are as close to being populist pursuits as it gets, and that’s not saying much. Last year, 54 percent of ski resort visitors came from households earning more than $100,000 annually, accounting to the National Ski Areas Association. That rose from 48 percent in 2008—an increase of 12.5 percent.

During that same period, families earning less than $100,000 who skied shrank from 52 percent to 46 percent, according to a CNBC report. The numbers aren’t difficult to track from there.

Skiing is becoming, more and more, the exclusive (and shrinking) domain of upper-middle and upper-class families. So we see two factors at work—geography and cost—separating Americans increasingly from any relevant knowledge of the sports NBC will ask us to watch these next 12 days. Schools don’t offer a majority of these sports even in areas where winter happens due to pricing and logistics.

So, Mr. Costas, Make the soft-focus features extra sappy, and tell Bridget from Stowe whose parents could afford lift tickets to be extra spunky on the podium; we can’t afford to relate to the competitions themselves.