Mr. Vladimir Putin intends that the current Olympic games be forever stamped with his glory. Sochi is being protected by a “Ring of Steel.” Thus has spoken Russia’s current Man of Steel, who sees himself as the rightful descendant of the original, although Mr. Putin’s bared breasts on such frequent display tend to undermine the desired effect; as with most sexagenarians, there is at least as much suet as steel to his pectorals. But of course the security forces who embody Putin’s will and compose the Ring, over 30,000 strong, are younger and fresher than their master, if perhaps less practiced in ultraviolence than he. So Chechen and Dagestani mad bombers have been put on notice. The mad bombers, however, are no slouches themselves in the destructive arts; witness the murderous explosions last December in Volgograd, the gray city formerly known as Stalingrad. Such a clever choice of target that was, done with the wit one has come to expect of militant Islam: men of steel come and go, but jihad is forever. One cannot but be apprehensive, then, that this Olympiad will be known less for sporting excellence than for some terrorist abomination or for the hardline crackdown in the name of civilization, or the Russian simulacrum thereof. At some point every athlete and every spectator in Sochi will sense the danger in being there.
It wasn’t always so. One of the biggest thrills of my young life at the age of 18 was attending the Summer Olympics in the company of my Dartmouth College classmate, and dearest friend since we were both eleven, Mikael Salovaara. We were there to see only one event: men’s whitewater kayaking, an Olympic sport for the first time, and for which a man-made course had been engineered where no water flowed before.
In those days, Dartmouth was a haven for jocks with a sufficiency of brainpower: most everyone was a high school valedictorian who had also starred in at least one sport, and who was revved up at the thought of eventual success as corporate lawyer, orthopedic surgeon, newspaper columnist, or mergers and acquisitions wizard. Mikael fit that description precisely, but he was already bored by the ballgames of his glorious boyhood. So during his freshman year he took up whitewater kayaking—building his own fiberglass boat, learning the life-saving Eskimo roll in the swimming pool, and subsequently trying his skill and nerve on swift and treacherous living streams, including some real killers. Mikael’s nerve was never in doubt; his skill would always lag somewhat. His sporting brethren tagged him with the honorific “Suicide Mike,” or simply “Suicide,” for his sublime indifference toward the prospect of violent watery death, which was ever imminent in the next cascade or whirlpool or haystack, or the one after that. Suicide was the most beloved of this band of brothers. Courage counted for a great deal.
A lot of those guys were very good indeed at this sport. One of them stood out above the rest: Eric “The Hammer” Evans, the national whitewater champion, who would go on to defend that title successfully for some ten years in a row. Evans was The Hammer because he smashed his way through roaring water with strokes of preternatural force and deftness, and because he excelled in the post-game decompression known locally as pounding toxins—emptying a keg and the convivial dogpile aftermath constituting the basis of social life in that quaint masculine enclave.