In less than two weeks, the world will come together on the snow-and-ice-covered countryside of Vancouver, Canada for the 2010 Winter Olympic Games.
While most American sports fans will be interested in events like NHL-star-studded ice hockey, elegant figure skating, dramatic ski jumping and rock-and-roll snowboarding events, the Winter Games are the one chance every four years to experience unique sports like curling and skeleton.
Curling is a team event of four athletes who work together to hurl frozen, spinning rocks down a long icy track toward a giant bull's-eye. One athlete releases the rock while sliding on one knee, and sending the frozen squished sphere turning toward the target. Another team member watches the projection of the rock and instructs two others to brush the ice, sometimes violently, to help keep the rock straight or turn it toward the target.
Like croquet, one team can knock another's rock out of the bull's-eye, with the closest team earning points toward a final tally. It is far too complicated a sport to explain or understand in a few words, or even hours of watching on TV or online, but it is also fascinating. The skills required are cultivated over many years and passed down from generation to generation.
Skeleton is simpler to understand. It's basically sled riding on a frozen trough at speeds more than 130 mph - head first, with your chin inches from the ice. The sport requires a good push and a strong body, with arms tucked behind the athletes' back to improve the aerodynamics. Most importantly, these athletes need nerves of steel to whip through corners as fast as possible, trying to pick up tenths and hundredths of a second. Skeleton sliders boast that they literally stare death in the face.
Nielson television ratings reported one of the lowest-viewed Olympics in decades after the 2006 Games in Torino, Italy. The Vancouver Games may fare better, being in the Pacific time zone. Many Americans will have the chance to watch event finals live during afternoon and prime-time hours, rather than being forced to tune in to live coverage in the middle of the night or on tape delay.
No matter how exciting or unfamiliar the sport may be, from skiing to skating to skeleton, the athletes who stand on the podium and hear their national anthem played while their flags are raised are fulfilling dreams a lifetime in the making.
The dedication it takes to become a Winter Olympic champion is admirable, especially considering the tiny number of them who end up with lucrative endorsement deals or personified on a box of Wheaties.
Perhaps their drive comes from the most fundamental of all goals in sports: pride. Pride in their abilities, their sport, their families and their country. That's worth watching.
Goodman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her column appears on Tuesdays.