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Brandon Veale column: Even under duress, Beijing Olympics about humanity

Despite the setting, wherever you found human emotion, connection and achievement, you found the Olympic spirit.

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Brandon Veale
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DULUTH — As you might have noted from the tone (and frequency) of these Olympic columns, I have a distinct desire to attend one of these as a credentialed journalist one day.

But, in an occurrence I've not felt since I was maybe 8 years old, I did not want to be a credentialed journalist at the 2022 Olympic Winter Games in Beijing.

The "closed loop" anti-COVID strategies and stories about having to use burner phones and eat lunch served by robots and workers in hazmat suits at tables surrounded by Plexiglas was enough to scare me off before considering the moral implications of the Chinese Communist Party's social, international and economic policies.

Besides, in the Northland this winter, the Olympics came to us. There was a foggy night in December at Curl Mesabi in Eveleth, where we got to sit down with Team Shuster to talk at length about the upcoming tournament, balancing focus on the past and present, and even a little on the future. If LeBron James wants to play with his son in the NBA, surely John Shuster can team up with his kids in a future Olympic bonspiel, right?

There was another night when I found myself reading up on the history of Estonian skiing and Continental Bike and Ski to prepare for an interview with Duluth-born Katie Vesterstein just before she hopped on a plane from Utah to China.

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I've never interviewed Nick Baumgartner, but as a fellow Yooper, it felt like I did. And in true U.P. fashion, my column about his snowboard cross triumph made it back to his mom, who emailed the office a couple of days ago.

But my favorite interaction came about a week ago from a man in New Orleans, who called the News Tribune asking if we could clarify something he heard on a broadcast of a U.S. women's curling match. The broadcasters said the team brought special coffee from Duluth to China, and he asked, what kind might it be?

This time of year, I look forward to any call that's friendly, so I figured I'd do a little detective work. I emailed Price Atkinson, media liaison at USA Curling and asked, adding, "please don't waste more than 30 seconds of your time on this." Price got back to me within hours: It was Duluth Coffee Co., for the record.

Those are the kinds of moments I will remember from this grand Olympic story. I hope we never have to repeat the physical separation of COVID protocols in this setting ever again. After Sochi and now Beijing (twice), I hope it's a long time before we have to deal with the unseemly intrusions of authoritarian governments in this global festival.

But I realized that almost everything I enjoyed from Beijing was derived from moments of human achievement, human emotion and human connection: Matt Hamilton cracking jokes on a live mic going out across the world, Baumgartner coaching his teammate down the mountain and across the finish line whether Lindsey Jacobellis could hear him or not, and hundreds and thousands of little moments that weren't televised by NBC.

And where there was no humanity, such as Eteri Tutberidze's scandalous treatment of the young Russian figure skaters she coached, whether it was the one who failed a drug test or not, the raw cynicism of our age was laid bare.

But as far as I know, no one gave Tutberidze a medal, or any members of the Chinese Politburo or any of those killer dinosaurs chasing Shaun White around in the commercials.

Maybe this admittedly low point will show the Olympic movement what really matters. It's not the settings or the governments that put this on, nor the feckless functionaries whose dithering allowed for a 15-year-old girl to be shredded on international TV, not NBC hype or international marketing campaigns.

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It's not even about the best athletes, as the eminently watchable NHL-free men's hockey tournament proved. And it's not about the medals.

The Olympics are about humans, doing their best, and the connections they make with other humans during the process. As ugly as so much of the rest of it can be, that is what keeps me coming back.

The television ratings and my body clock, thoroughly broken by curling at 2:30 a.m. on a weeknight, tell me that we all need a break until the "youth of the world" converge on Paris in the summer of 2024 and Milan and Cortina, Italy in February of 2026. That's fine, as long as you save a spot on the plane for me.

Brandon Veale is the sports editor of the News Tribune. He can be reached at bveale@duluthnews.com.

Related Topics: OLYMPICS
Brandon has been sports editor of the News Tribune since August 2021.
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