TURIN, Italy — We come here to the Winter Olympics to watch the best skiers, skaters and sledders in the world, but it's when they stop moving and start talking that the Olympics really take off.
When athletes and media crossed paths, we saw expressions of teenage infatuation and supposedly mature adults bicker like young brothers in the backseat of a minivan. There were acts of charity and selfishness, enlightenment and stupidity.
Ultimately, the memorable characters of these Games were not defined by what they did, but what they said.
Olympic news conferences aren't your everyday interactions between athletes and reporters. Everything is over-amplified because of the magnitude of the event. And there's always a chance for an international incident because of a linguistic or cultural misunderstanding, so a question about a triple toe loop can come across as an insult to someone's family.
Actually, one of my all-time favorite quotes was uttered through an interpreter. At the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Miami Herald humor writer Dave Barry was looking for some whimsical remarks from wrestler Alexander Karelin's about his job as a Russian tax collector.
Karelin, who was a bald-headed cross between Ivan Drago and a James Bond villain's henchman, doesn't do whimsy. He finally said something in Russian and the interpreter told Barry, "You are swimming in the shallow water."
I don't think any American in the room had heard the expression before, but everyone got its meaning.
Here in Turin, I wondered if anyone who wasn't from Southern California could fully appreciate figure skater Sasha Cohen's line, "When you know all these people are watching and you miss two jumps in warmups, it's hard to feel like you're getting churros at Disneyland."
If you grew up in SoCal it brings back childhood memories. If not, better ask an interpreter.
American snowboarder Danny Kass didn't need an interpreter, he just needed to repeat himself to a perplexed foreign journalist when he described Finn Markku Koski's bronze-medal winning run by saying "Markku slaughtered it today." So, going a little more slowly, Kass said "he slaugh-ter-ed it today."
Don't feel bad, my foreign friend. It can be tough for the native English speakers to follow the snowboarders when they start saying things like, "He's just got backside 9s on lock." (Kass' praise for gold medalist Shaun White's trick skills.)
But my favorite part of the news conference was White dropping into Mach mode, pretending to use his gold medal to pick up Cohen: "Hey, babe. Oh, this? Oh, yeah, I just got it. How \o7you\f7 doing?"
White put a winning number on the board in the quest for best news conference, but as the Olympics always show, you can be erased by the very next run. The following day, 500-meter speedskating gold medalist Joey Cheek took command of his news conference before the first question could be asked and blew everyone away.
"Can I make a statement real quick?" Cheek said when the moderator asked for questions. "I know you guys all want to do sweet stories about Hallmark and chocolates and butterflies and all that, but I have a pretty unique experience and a pretty unique opportunity here. So I'm going to take advantage of it while I can."
And with that, he announced he would donate his $25,000 gold-medal bonus from the United States Olympic Committee to Right to Play, a charity that provides life lessons through sports to underprivileged children around the world. Cheek's generosity started an avalanche of donations that has since topped $500,000.
It's too bad his speedskating brethren couldn't make such good use of their news conferences. Ultimately, Shani Davis and Chad Hedrick couldn't contain their dislike for one another, even sitting at opposite ends of the table. At one point, when a questioner likened their feud to that of Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan, Hedrick pretended to throw a water bottle at Davis.
Sometimes, even the journalistic hellhole known as the mixed zone produces good quotes. The mixed zone is the worst idea since co-ed bathrooms. First, the athletes stop to do one-on-one interviews with every television outlet from every continent. It's like watching the red carpet arrivals at the Oscars, only with fewer designer outfits (except for figure skating, of course).
After that they make their way to the print media. Because the athletes and media are separated by a fence, the reporters can't surround the athletes and get backed up three and four deep. That means the athletes have to stop two or three times and face the same set of questions. Then the medal winners still have to go to a news conference.
It's not uncommon to see a competitor spend 90 minutes talking about an event that took less than two minutes.