Every time the Olympics is held the term "jingoistic" inevitably is associated with the games. The reason is simple: The events that Americans fare well in draw the most interest from Americans; the ones Americans fare poorly in, well, no one cares.
It is even more true with the Winter Olympics which begin this week in Japan. Fans and collectors alike are going to pay attention to the events that Americans have a chance in; the others, well, they are going to be stuck behind reruns of "I Love Lucy" and porcelain figurines on the Home Shopping Network.
The reason the Summer, rather than the Winter, Olympics hold more interest for sports collectors is obvious: who wants a trading card of Gerda Weissenstiener (1994 Luge gold medalist from Italy) or is going to go out and get a jersey with Gustva Weder (1994 gold medalist in the two man bobsled from Switzerland). It isn't going to happen.
No, what little interest is generated for collectors and fans will come from three principal areas: ice hockey which will be the top event because of the addition of pros from the National Hockey League; figure skating, always the top draw because of women's successes through the years and Alpine skiing, due in part to recent USA success and the fact Americans actually know something about the sport.
Despite determined efforts by CBS, Americans just aren't going to fall in love with some of the other sports during the next three weeks, unless, of course, an American pulls a surprise and wins a medal. That occurred in the 1992 games when Donna Weinbrecht of the US won the first-ever mogul skiing event which can be likened to freestyle dancing on skiis. Still, Weinbrecht's fate was reserved for the $1,000 slot of Olympic heroes on Jeopardy. The sport has hardly caught fire in this country. Even the great speed skating achievements of Bonnie Blair of Champaign, Il., who won a total of seven medals, Eric Heiden who was the individual American champ in 1980 and the heroic story of Dan Jansen don't have a lasting effect on the minds of fans and collectors once the games are completed.
Americans do cherish their winners, even if it a short-term love affair. When the winter games were first begun in 1908, Americans did fairly well and in some areas even dominated. But like the summer games that saw the rest of the world catch up with the United States, Americans soon found themselves trailing European countries, notably Sweden and the Soviet Union, in the medal hunt.
It got so bad the federal government commissioned a study, headed by volatile New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, to figure out why Americans weren't doing better in the summer and winter games. It didn't take a genius to figure out most Americans don't downhill ski, compete in high school biathlon or have pee wee luge events for their kids. To most collectors in this country, Nordic Skiing sounds more like an infomercial at 3 a.m. than a gold medal Olympic event.
Clearly this year's games in Nagano will draw the most American "male" interest in hockey although it is unlikely to trigger a run on cards, coins or memorabilia. For the first time, NHL players will be allowed to compete for their own country which should improve competition and make the sport even more interesting. However, it is unlikely to generate the same type of interest that the 1980 Lake Placid "Miracle on Ice" did when the USA rode one upset win over another to the gold and catapulted its previously unknown performers into stars. An American win wouldn't be as unexpected or as dramatic. While the "dream teams" in basketball have led to increased collecting for the Summer Olympics, the entry of pros in other sports like tennis didn't cause a ripple in the collectable waters.
Figure skating will be the "female" favorite and also because CBS will spend countless hours promoting and covering it. The reason? Audience studies have shown women between the ages of 18 and 49 -- the key demographic for advertisers -- watch figure skating more than any other women's sport. And, because there is a long tradition of American success in the event dating back to Tenley Albright and Carol Heiss right through Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill and Kristi Yamaguchi. It is also a sport where American viewers will even tolerate a win by a non-American: hence the hoopla caused by Sonja Henie and Katarina Witt. In addition, medalists can go on and have a high profile career in touring ice shows and network TV specials, unlike their counterparts in most of the other Winter Olympic sports.
While there is a general ennui in this country about the skiing events which are really the cornerstone of the games, most of Europe looks toward those events in a Super Bowl frenzy. Occasionally an American will upset the cart and win a gold -- Tommy Moe won in 1994 in the downhill, Phil Mahre won the giant slalom 14 years ago -- but the events are dominated by Europeans. Collectors in Europe will pay close attention to the gold, silver and bronze finishes in those events while their American counterparts will take a collective yawn toward them -- and most of the Olympic events.