If there were a single moment that defines the Olympics, it collapsed to PyeongChang snow last Wednesday in a combination of exhaustion and ecstasy. It was suspenseful, then exhilarating, then triumphant, then poignant, and now memorable. Jessie Diggins’ sprint for cross-country skiing gold had everything. It had history. It had emotion. It had personality. It had unique backstories, replete with toil and failure.
This is probably the first and last time Diggins and teammate Kikkan Randall will appear in a column about soccer. But this is less a column about soccer and more a column about sport. Specifically, it’s about the two greatest sporting events on earth, the Olympics and the World Cup. It’s about the ways they converge and diverge, overlap and distinguish themselves.
There is, of course, no single moment that can define the Olympics. The name itself is plural for a reason. The plurality, not just of events, but of narrative and emotional experience, is what makes them unparalleled. It’s why, for two weeks every two years, you watch sports you otherwise ignore. It’s why the Olympic Movement endures.
But the Games come. And they go. And when they go in the winter, they give way to men’s World Cups. To month-long worldwide festivals, the only ones comparable to the Olympics, similar in many senses, distinct in many others.
As the eyes of the world begin to drift away from South Korea, they gradually wander toward Russia. Controversy will follow them. But so will all those attributes in the opening paragraph above. They – and the ways they’ll manifest themselves this summer – are the topic for this third edition of World Cup Touchline.
WORLD CUP TOUCHLINE: OLYMPIC COMPARISONS
1. Soccer, like almost every Olympic sport, operates on four-year cycles. It is, of course, far more popular than any Olympic sport in the interim. And that, as we’ll see, is at the heart of many differences between World Cup and Olympics. But it still peaks quadrennially. It still flows to a four-year beat, just like snowboarding or figure-skating or track and field.
2. Both World Cups and Olympics define careers. They are what athletes have dedicated thousands of hours to, sizable portions of their lives. And in one instant, whether on a downhill skiing slope in PyeongChang or the Luzhniki Stadium pitch in Moscow, all that work is either sucked away or validated. And because that opportunity won’t come again for at least another four years, if at all, there is nothing like it in club sports. Nothing like it when “there’s always next year” is a comforting refrain. Nothing at all. The gravity and pressure of the World Cup and Olympics are peerless.
3. And oftentimes that’s silly. Why should Lionel Messi, who plays around 5,500 minutes of competitive soccer every year at a level higher than anybody else ever has, be questioned because of shortcomings in one or two games on the big stage? Why should Lindsey Vonn or Lindsey Jacobellis, among the best ever in their respective disciplines, be forgotten because of their failures in just a few races? Why should their greatness be diminished?
It shouldn’t be, and in many cases won’t be by those in the know. But the knowledge that it will be by some is what amplifies the drama of World Cups and Olympics. It’s what tugs at emotional strings. It’s why every gate that Vonn sped past in South Korea was so momentous. It’s why every Messi touch at the World Cup is so engrossing, even if thousands of other touches have already proven he’s the GOAT.
4. It’s why Messi’s facial expressions after a semifinal penalty shootout victory in 2014, and the tornado of emotions beneath them, will always stick with me:
5. Messi, however, represents one of the key differences between World Cup and Olympics. The Olympics have nobody like him, nobody who carries transcendent superstardom into the World Cup without ever having lifted it. The Olympics don’t validate Messi equivalents like Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps. They make them on their own.
6. The World Cup and Olympics introduce us to a sport’s protagonists – budding superstars known by many avid fans, but not previously by casual ones. The nothing-to-somethingness is more pronounced at the Olympics, where, for example, very few had ever even heard the name Ester Ledecka before her stunning two-sport success this month. But the percentage of soccer followers already infatuated with, say, Monaco’s James Rodriguez before the 2014 World Cup is lower than you probably think. It was only after a few goals, one majestic volley, unrelenting tears and a special moment arm in arm with David Luiz that the Colombian became a star.
7. The four-year cycles do more than heighten importance and birth stars. They become landmarks or checkpoints for character development. There is inevitably roster turnover, but one of the more rewarding aspects of Olympic or World Cup fandom is to see transformations over four years. It’s that teenage swimmer you picked out in London who wins multiple golds in Rio. It’s even someone like Kevin De Bruyne, who for many Americans is still that baby-faced ginger who ravaged the U.S. in the round of 16 four years ago. In a few months, they’ll realize that same baby-faced ginger has become a bona fide top-10 player in the world.
8. There’s no better example of the four-year benchmarking than Germany. The stylistic and philosophical foundation was laid in 2006. The seeds were sowed. Flowers like Mesut Ozil, Sami Khedira and Thomas Muller blossomed in South Africa in 2010. And four years later, they were on top of the world.
9. And a few of their teammates went out on top. Only a select few get to do that. However, whether triumphant or otherwise, both World Cups and Olympics give us special swan songs. They give us Kikkan Randall, 35, at her fifth Olympics, finally winning not just any medal, a golden one. They give us Bolt and Phelps punctuating greatness. They give us Vonn leaving her’s open to interpretation. The 2014 World Cup granted Philipp Lahm, Per Mertesacker and Miroslav Klose the ideal send-offs. But there were dozens of others who saw World Cup careers end in heartbreak. That, too, is part of the experience.
10. And often we don’t know swan songs when we see them. Nobody even considered the possibility that the 2014 semifinal might be Robin van Persie’s and Arjen Robben’s. So we cherish every performance from magicians like them.
11. Russia will be an international farewell for Andres Iniesta, scorer of one of the most famous goals in World Cup history, and the third-best player of his generation. Meanwhile, the second-best, Cristiano Ronaldo, is 33. The best, Messi, will turn 31 during the group stage.
As we urged, cherish their every move this summer.
12. More similarities: Patriotism can be both empowering and dangerous, a force for both good and bad. At the World Cup and Olympics, it is almost always the former. And it’s nearly ubiquitous.
13. Its unifying power is best captured by national anthem renditions. There’s something very different about Brazilian players belting out theirs before a match compared to, say, the U.S. women’s hockey team draping their arms around one another for the Star-Spangled Banner in PyeongChang with gold medals around their necks. But in a lot of ways, the emotion comes from the same place.
14. Perhaps the biggest similarity between the two sporting extravaganzas is that they deliver these moments. Moments frozen in time. The final straightaway. The race to the wall. The do-or-die halfpipe run. The audacious jump on ice. The hammer. The late free kick. Moments, scrutinized by tens of millions of eyes, that change history, one way or another.
15. The difference between World Cup and Olympics? In soccer, aside from those moments, you get so much more.
16. One reason soccer is the most popular sport in the world is that there’s a certain unpredictability to it. It’s not unpredictability of winners and losers – some Olympic sports have that as well. It’s the unpredictability of that aforementioned moment – not how it will transpire, but when it will. The breathtaking, indelible moments aren’t scheduled, and often can’t be anticipated. They’re spontaneous. And that etches them even deeper into memories.
17. There’s also a certain artistry to soccer that gives every crucial World Cup goal, or save, or catastrophic miss a distinct place in a nation’s sporting history. You probably can’t reproduce many, if any, of Phelps’ golden swims in your head right now. But you’ll never forget Landon Donovan against Algeria, or Clint Dempsey against Ghana, or John Brooks against Ghana … the list goes on.
18. S—. The U.S. isn’t going to be at the 2018 World Cup. That’s, uh, another big difference.
[World Cup touchline: How to enjoy Russia 2018 as a USMNT fan]
19. But the U.S.’ absence, in a way, tells us more about why the World Cup is so special. It provoked outraged. And in other countries, a similar failure would have provoked 10 times more outrage. Outrage the likes of which the Olympics rarely, if ever, bring about. The possibility of that disappointment is what fuels celebrations and joy the likes of which the Olympics never see either. The highs can only be as high as the lows married to them are low.
20. Why doesn’t widespread disappointment ever accompany the Olympics? Part of it is certainly down to the interim periods, during which soccer, unlike figure skating or swimming, is the lifeblood of a sporting nation. Whereas World Cups are culminations of long, enduring, ongoing narratives, Olympics are more isolated. There’s no sense of long-term emotional investment needing validation.
21. Because of that, the World Cup, from a fan’s perspective, is absolute. It’s success or failure. In many cases, it’s do-or-die. The Olympics, on the other hand, are do-or-don’t watch. When Nathan Chen didn’t win a gold medal, you weren’t depressed for an entire week. Because there’s no long-standing connection to a team at the Olympics, you can easily detach yourself.
22. Another difference is that the Olympics, as discussed in the intro, are plural. As a viewer, you can easily move on to another sport, another athlete, another gold medal possibility. At the World Cup, there’s no such option. Which is why millions of people pour so much energy into the success or failure of 11 people.
23. That sole, narrow focus explains the public square gatherings and viewing parties for World Cup games. Curling clubs can’t match that.
24. It’s also why you get the days-long celebrations in streets, the millions congregating on the Champs-Elysees or at the Brandenburg Gate.
[World Cup Touchline: The story of qualification]
26. One word there is key. Athletes qualify for the Olympics. Nations qualify for the World Cup. That gets at the heart of the difference. It’s the collective dynamic, the all-for-one nature, the central focus that brings a people together, and makes the World Cup what it is.
27. That’s why national identities, sociological dynamics and politics are so often tied to a country’s soccer team, but rarely to an Olympic team or individual. Politics are tied to both major events, of course, the 2018 Olympics perhaps more so than ever. But the history of politicians using sporting success or failure to support or even drive their overarching message is much richer at the World Cup.
28. Both World Cups and Olympics become cultural melting pots. The temporary proximity of diverse backgrounds and customs to one another accentuates everything that makes each unique. But they’re even more accentuated at the World Cup, because all 32 nations get the spotlight to themselves for a few two-hour periods. And entire fan bases descend on a few locations, making their collective personas intelligible.
29. The World Cup is infinitely better as a TV event. There are no overlapping games, except on the final day of the group. There is no tuning in and having to wonder whether what you’re watching is live or on delay. The real-time drama, and the sense that what you’re witnessing is being simultaneously experienced by millions of others around the globe, outdoes the Olympics.
30. Speaking of TV … there’s a real worry that Fox is going to, for lack of a better phrase, screw this up. And it just might. Its draw coverage, compared to ESPN’s in the past, was ominous. Its first major commercial, unlike ESPN’s in the past, doesn’t quite capture the beauty and grandiosity of the World Cup. But let’s go in with an open mind. Let’s give Fox a shot.
31. The characters that give the World Cup personality are more well known, which means there are fewer quirks. Those were mostly confined to qualification. There will be no Elizabeth Swaney in Russia. Perhaps that’s a downside. Perhaps.
32. But there will still be stories, man. So many stories. Heartwarming ones. Heartbreaking ones. Courageous ones. Enraging ones. Controversial ones. Stories like the ones Yahoo Sports tried to tell throughout February. Stories we’ll do our best to tell between now and July.
More World Cup touchline:
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