The unknowns might be what make the Pyeongchang Games fun

Pyeongchang – a complete disaster.

Or is it?

Certainly, on first glance it would appear as though the XXIII Olympic Winter Games are destined to go down as one of the great sporting fiascos of Olympic history.

The NHL, in its greed rather than its wisdom, decided not to release its players to compete for their countries, thereby kneecapping what has been, since Nagano in 1998, the headliner of the Winter Games.

This, combined with impossible prime-time broadcast issues for the critical European and North American audiences, led to newspapers and broadcasters slashing the resources they would usually send.

Then came Tuesday: the International Olympic Committee’s decision to ban Russia from Pyeongchang as punishment for years of state-endorsed athlete doping. Given that Russians took approximately one out of every five medals awarded in Sochi four years ago, this is a bit like informing the two-time defending-champion Pittsburgh Penguins that, because of infractions by some of the players, the team will not be allowed to play in the Stanley Cup playoffs this spring.

It certainly looked like a disaster in the making – and may yet turn out to be exactly that.

That it might not turn out as badly as first imagined has to do with the international sporting world showing a rare spot of common sense, a quick outbreak of sanity previously unheard of whenever the Olympics and politics are concerned.

First, the IOC chose to ban Russia but not Russians. No Russian flag, no familiar Russian anthem, but approved (clean) and qualified athletes with Russian birth certificates are welcome to compete under the neutral, if rather silly, banner of “Olympic Athletes from Russia.”

Hard to believe, but back in 1896, when French Baron Pierre de Coubertin revived the ancient Olympics in Athens, there was to be no politics, no flags, no country designations. Flags first flew in London in 1908 and madness has ensued since.

This time, however, the IOC decided there would be no “blockade” of Russia, as decades ago had happened to those countries on the losing ends of both world wars. This was wise, as surely (prayers said, deep breath, all fingers crossed) there are some exceptional Russian athletes who have actually done it on their own.

As Canada’s Beckie Scott, who lost a gold medal in cross-country skiing to two doped Russians in 2002 but was later awarded it, said: “A day like today really infuses some confidence and restores some faith in the sports bodies and leadership that is controlling and managing sport right now … a step in the right direction.”

The next fear was that there would be a “boycott” by Russia of the Games. There are far, far too many past boycotts to list. In 1976 alone, nearly 30 countries refused to attend the Montreal Games for a variety of reasons. In 1980, the United States and dozens of countries refused to go to Moscow because the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan, a country the United States would invade a generation later. In 1984, the Soviets boycotted the Los Angeles Games.

“An Olympic boycott has never achieved anything,” IOC president Thomas Bach said.

Happily, Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed with him. Putin had issues with the IOC ban, but none with those athletes, who had trained hard, going if they can.

“We will not declare any kind of blockade,” Putin said after the IOC announced its decision. “We will not block out Olympians from taking part if any of them wish to take part as individuals. They have been preparing for these competitions for their whole careers, and for them it’s very important.”

Suddenly instead of the end of story, there are story lines everywhere. If a Russian athlete wins gold, and has been pretested and preapproved, those who regularly dismiss any Russian victory will be forced to accept that, just perhaps, this gold-medal winner is truly the best in the world at his or her sport.

It could even mean that the surprise media sensation of the Sochi Games – the Russian women curlers, with their lingerie poses with curling brooms and stones, with their loud, boisterous and so-un-curling fans – may be back. Or not, as Ekaterina Galkina, a member of Anna Sidorova’s team, is still being investigated for questionable samples provided in the lead-up to the Sochi Games.

As for hockey, still the No. 1 Olympic attraction for Canada, defender of the gold medal in both men’s and women’s competition, this may prove to be the most interesting Winter Games since 1998, when women’s hockey was first brought in and the NHLers were first allowed to play.

Women’s hockey is now deservedly a major attraction. The skill levels since Nagano have risen dramatically and an Olympic match between the Canadians and the Americans is invariably a highlight of the Games.

On the men’s side, there is the attraction of vast unknowns. Will enough Russians be found to bring gold, finally, to the team that usually brings the greatest amount of skill but is never able to put it all together? Will a team such as Switzerland or Latvia or Slovakia surprise again? Will Canadians get behind a jury-rigged group of players from different leagues and levels who don’t have million-dollar contracts to return to, but most assuredly have something to prove?

The reality is that men’s hockey in the Olympics has grown a bit tired since the excitement of Nagano and the Canadians picking up their first gold in 50 years in Salt Lake City.

The tournament in Sochi, apart from one fabulous game between Russia and the United States, was little different from overcoached, defence-obsessed NHL hockey, the gold-medal match between Canada and Sweden little different from a Tuesday night in New Jersey during the regular NHL season.

A dose of the unknown and unpredictable might be just what’s needed.

So don’t write off Pyeongchang just yet.

Courtesy: The Globe And Mail