The Olympic meta-count

The narrative of cross-country skiing is a bit like the activity itself- that is, straightforward. Weird things happen when writers try to ‘go meta’ about it.

For your consideration

Four years ago I put up a post titled ‘What does the NYTimes have against cross country skiing?‘ highlighting a particular pre-Pyongchang article that was supposed to whet people’s appetite for the Olympic coverage. The characterization of cross-country skiing in the piece can be encapsulated in these two quotes: “brutally sustained nonthrill”, and “the goddamn slog”.

This year we almost have the opposite problem:

“The sprite”

That word set off a small storm of protest by people who felt it objectified Jessie Diggins’ body rather than observing her specific capabilities as a skier. I thought it was an odd choice myself, especially considering that Therese Johaug is not so tall, nor is Krista Pärmäkoski, but I wouldn’t think to describe either of them as ‘sprites’. Best case interpretation is that the writer was trying to imply Diggins’ public persona relates to her skiing technique.

“Gorgeous Misery”

Apparently WaPo commenters liked the poetic license of the writer of this piece. To each their own, but I had these thoughts while reading it:

  • Men collapse after their events too. Why focus on a women’s event in particular? Apparently the notion that athletes collapse in a bunch at the finish line took the author by surprise, like they’d never heard of such a thing.
  • Maybe I’m wrong but phrases like this: “the most evocative heaving, the most exquisite suffering” sound just a wee bit sexualized.
  • For that matter, a few other turns of phrase in the article sound… well, sort of salacious. I’ll leave it to others to search and decide on their own.

“Beauty and Brutality”

What the heck is it with using words that connote contrasting states of being when describing cross-country skiing? At any rate, the writer of this article actually has been a cross-country ski racer, is a dad of daughters, and honestly admires what the athletes do.

“The slog”

Bill McKibben likes cross-country skiing for its’ own sake. Unlike the person who wrote the Washington Post piece above, McKibben describes Diggins “gasping like a beached fish in the snow”, which does not sound like gorgeous misery.

In contrast to the author of the NYT piece four years ago that associated all forms of XC skiing with ‘the slog’, McKibben concisely compares the demands of recreational vs. competitive skiers: “If you’re meandering through the Vermont woods, there’s nothing sweeter—but if you’re climbing steep hills at top speed, the aerobic demands are off the chart.”

No salacious poetry in McKibben’s article, just clear writing. Kind of like a bracing glass of Aquavit on ice. That’s meta enough for me.


I couldn’t resist going a bit meta about my own thinking regarding the above, so I sketched a diagram:

Informed and aware vs. observational accuracy diagram
Grading the quality of article content

Considering about the qualities of the articles and what would be appropriate ways to grade them, I came up with the axes above: the level of informed knowledge and awareness expressed by the writer vs. how well-observed and accurate their writing was.

To summarize their relative positioning:

  • The WaPo article was uninformed and it didn’t have good observations. Admittedly ‘good’ is a more subjective term than ‘well-observed’, but that’s the way it goes on this blog. The writer expressed no knowledge of the sport or activity, and their observations were limited; eg: “if you watch only the terrain beyond the finish line… you still might grasp the whole race in a sense”. Hmmm. And their sense of awareness seemed to come from somewhere within themselves, not from the athletes.
  • The NYTimes piece from four years ago had some good observation from the writer’s own childhood experience, but it also meant their awareness was limited to that time. Even so, the writer could have reviewed those memories in light of other information and knowledge.
  • “Like a sprite” was a single turn of phrase that marred an otherwise well-observed and reasonably well-informed piece. Getting further into the weeds, part of the reason the comment struck a nerve in some is that Diggins has been very public about an earlier eating disorder. Objectors were calling out the term as objectifying the body and rallying to Diggins’ defense in particular. Not defending the term in dispute at all, but saying that an easy edit was all it needed for the piece to be ‘better informed’.
  • McKibben’s piece in The New Yorker and the one in the NY Post were both well-observed, with specific and accurate detail about the activity, conditions, and venue. It helped that the writers are both experienced cross-country skiers, so they brought a well-informed perspective as well. They also have writing skills (wish I had more of that). McKibben has had some experience conveying complex topics in the physical world to a lay audience, so he brought what might be called an ‘Edward Abbey’ voice to his prose.

If having extensive experience is a requirement to being well-informed, that’s a pretty high bar for journalists to meet, since few are able to cover areas they know about. However, the best reporters try to be highly aware of information or viewpoints they might be missing. And even those with knowledge and insight find it tough to be aware of how other people experience the activity.

As for observational quality and accuracy, that’s accessible to everyone- after all, humans have depended on it for hundreds of thousands of years. This is more amenable to testing and verification, but again, it depends on whether we sense what there is or what we want to see.