A more appropriate nickname for these so-called Peace Games would be the Geopolitical Public Relations Olympics, as North Korea has claimed gold in media manipulation with a contingent that has included Kim Jong Un’s sister, red-clad cheering sections and low-caliber athletes that have become the subjects of widespread fascination.
In the background of the cynical spectacle, however, the ideals of the Olympics remain very much alive, embodied by anonymous men and women competing in obscure sports, athletes such as Chris Mazdzer, who on Sunday became America’s first-ever male medalist in the luge.
You had probably never heard of Mazdzer, but that’s the point. His silver medal won’t make him an overnight millionaire and, at some point, the 29-year-old will have to find work that doesn’t involve him sliding down his back on ice-covered tracks.
If anything, the absence of money and fame have made the 29-year-old’s journey to the podium all the more meaningful.
“It’s all about passion, it’s about heart,” Mazdzer said. “That’s what luge is.”
It’s also about community. His sisters and girlfriend gained online attention after they stripped down to their sports bras in frigid temperatures to cheer him on, but his support system extends far beyond that.
“That’s the most amazing thing about sport,” he said. “It gives you the opportunity to connect.”
Luge is said to be the most difficult of the sliding sports. As such, any luger with ambitions of becoming world-class is required to take up the sport when young. The result is that many of the world’s top sliders have known each other since teenagers.
Mazdzer, who grew up in upstate New York, competed for the first time in Europe when he was 13.
Mazdzer was in something of a slump for the last two seasons, his times failing to reflect the progress he believed he was making on his starts and runs. As he searched for answers, a curious opportunity presented itself: a Russian slider, whom Mazdzer declined to name, offered him his sled. The Russian athlete was skeptical about his own chances of participating in the Olympics.
“He wanted to see what someone could do on his sled,” Mazdzer said.
Mazdzer took a practice run on the sled and learned his 6-foot-1 frame was too large for it. The Russian athlete ended up qualifying for the Olympics. The gesture was still touching.
“This goes against every U.S.-Russian stereotype ever,” Mazdzer said. “You’re just like, ‘This is your competitive advantage. Are you sure?’ And in some broken language of smiles and handshakes and high-fives, it’s like, ‘Yeah, just do it.’”
Mazdzer is close to Johannes Ludwig of Germany and recalled what it was like to be standing next to him Sunday when he learned he won a bronze medal.
“I’ll never forget looking over to him,” Mazdzer said. “He couldn’t process. You could see him having this blank stare. It’s such an amazing opportunity to share that with such a close group of people.”
Mazdzer is also a part of the community back home. Americans have come close to the medaling before, with Adam Heidt taking fourth in 2002 and Tony Benshoof doing the same four years later.
“Those are guys I’ve looked up to my entire career,” Mazdzer said. “I know they had people they looked up to. This organization has put a ton of money and resources. Not only that, but manpower. A lot of things that we do here is pretty much on a voluntary basis. So I’ve had almost 60 years of people putting their lives, sacrificing, so much into this, and for me to be that person that finally breaks through, it’s special for me but it’s just a way I can say thanks for putting me in this position.”
Mazdzer’s cheering section Sunday included not only his parents, sisters and girlfriend, but also the families and friends of the others American lugers, including the entrants of the women’s and doubles competitions.
Mazdzer’s sisters had cheered him on in sports bras at the Vancouver Games and invited his girlfriend, Mara Mirian, to join them.
“In the moment, you feel nothing because you’re just staring at the TV. I’m so nervous and excited,” Mirian said with a laugh. “Suddenly, he’s done and the next guy’s going and you realize, ‘Where’s my coat?’ ”
Mazdzer moved from fourth to second on the third of his four runs and held the position. He finished with a combined time of three minutes 10.728 seconds, only 0.026 seconds behind David Gleirscher of Austria.
“What just happened?” Mazdzer asked.
The performance gained Mazdzer a measure of fame. Leslie Jones of “Saturday Night Live” posted a video of Mazdzer’s final run that included her foul-mouthed but comical running commentary.
“That was pretty awesome,” Mazdzer said.
And by the following morning, a video game of him was circulating on social media.
He knows this is only temporary.
“You’re climbing up this mountain and then you get to the pinnacle, which is the Olympics, and if you don’t build a bridge from the peak of that mountain over to another mountain, you’re going to fall into this huge crevasse,” he said. “I realize this will end. I’m pretty good at sledding, but I don’t know how that will do in a job interview.
“I’m always thinking of what to do next. I feel comfortable enough where I can move on from the sport, but I really do think I want to go another four years. There’s one more rung on that ladder to climb.”