PYEONGCHANG, South Korea—I’m picking America’s next great sport: short-track speedskating.
Look, we all know the legacy sports are in trouble in the U.S. Everybody’s furious at football—they may as well shut down the NFL. Baseball games are 11 hours long. The Golden State Warriors are going to win every NBA title until 2048. ZZzzz. Hockey is hockey.
Tastes are changing. Attention spans are getting shorter. Folks are cutting the cord, stepping outside in the sun, discovering there’s more to life than watching sports on television.
I know: it’s terrible. The country’s going to hell.
Short-track speedskating can reverse the trend, however—get us glued back to our TVs. I’ve seen enough in Pyeongchang to be convinced. If I were NBC or ESPN or Fox, I’d be gobbling up the rights. I’d be developing a short-track league and a short-track reality show called “Short-Track Haus” or “Short Track vs. Shark.” I’d also program “Thursday Night Short Track” and demolish the NFL’s snoozy offering the same night.
You know short track: It’s the NASCAR-meets-roller-derby version of speedskating, in which skaters barrel around a rink, bumping and fighting for position and placing. It’s been around the Olympics for a while, since 1992, and it’s made stars out of U.S. athletes like Cathy Turner and Apolo Anton Ohno. Every once in a while, it kicks up into a public fascination, because it is genuinely fun to watch.
I think it’s time the U.S. goes all in. Short track has everything Americans adore in sports: speed, action, physicality, crashes, controversy…and OH YEAH YOU KNOW YOU LOVE IT instant-replay review.
I’ve felt this way for a while. I’ve had dull nights at almost every sport, but never a dull night at short track. Especially here. South Korea is one of its hotbeds, and the atmosphere in Pyeongchang has been phenomenal: packed, noisy, youthful. President Moon Jae-in came to the races on Saturday night and stayed until the very end. Yeah, Moon knows what’s up.
And short track isn’t just great live—it’s great on TV, too. (Sports are usually one or the other.) There’s gender equality—the men’s and women’s events are equally riveting. On Saturday, the biggest event by far was South Korean star Choi Min-jeong’s triumph in the women’s 1500. As she blew away the field to win gold, the arena got rowdier than any Knicks game I’ve ever been to.
Short track is perfect for the modern attention span, because short track is, well, short. Those hard-to-harness millennials will love it—the average race is shorter than a YouTube clip. Little kids, too. Have you ever tried to get a little kid to watch an entire baseball game? It’s easier to teach your dog how to play piano.
(Yes: I’m also secretly into short track because of its numerous parallels to velodrome track cycling, which is the other great sport America needs to embrace and show on television as much as possible. Anyone who’s ever ridden a bike in a loop will recognize short track’s shared DNA—the positioning, the aerodynamics, the contact. I will not rest until there are more velodromes and short-track rinks in America than Pizza Huts and Subways.)
Team USA had a fantastic night at short track Saturday. John-Henry Krueger, 22, won a silver medal in a rock ‘em, sock ‘em-style 1000-meter final—America’s first speedskating medal, long or short, in eight years.
Originally from Pittsburgh, Krueger came up through the stateside system before he decided to take his skates to South Korea, and later, Europe. That may be smart from a competitive standpoint, but it isn’t an easy choice. Afterward, he said his podium placing was both a milestone and a vindication.
“Besides getting the Olympic medal, the second greatest thing is knowing that all the decisions I made leading up to the games were right,” he said.
Now let’s go to the replay. Short track has a lot of crashing and wiping out, and instant replay review is a critical part of the short track experience. Officials look over the tape and try to figure out if collisions were caused by illegal contact—and if so, offer disqualifications. In the meantime, tension builds. Fans scream and yell. Medals are on line.
The officials resolve it rather quickly, however. It isn’t like the NFL, where you can read “Moby Dick” in the time it takes them to sort out what’s a catch or not. The official verdict is final, and the short-trackers must abide. No coach gets to throw a dirty red sock onto the ice to appeal.
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