FEBRUARY 21, 2014
PONTIAC FEVER is caused by exposure to Legionella bacteria, which live most commonly in dirty hot tubs and spas. You kick back, unwind, congratulate yourself on a day well-lived, breath in the mist, get sick. This past Sunday was my birthday, and in the evening I decided to ease into my mid-30s by taking a dip in a saltwater soaking pool. Later that night I developed a deep chest cough, and in the morning awoke to a fever. Yesterday it reached 103.6, and last night after a couple hours of delirious, exhausting sleep, I decided to change my sodden sheets — pointlessly, I soon discovered, for within minutes the new sheets were just as wet as the old ones. Finally I elected to wrap myself in a towel, the logic being that towels are more absorbent than sheets. I dreamt of falling into the San Francisco Bay.
Now, I’m standing alone in my apartment watching four Kevlar-clad men orbit a hockey rink at nearly 30mph. The footage is twelve hours old but when you’re as sick as I am it’s easy to forget that this already happened. Short-track speedskating is my favorite event of the Winter Olympics. The physics of it are astonishing: the impossible angles on the curves, the hands on the ice, the wipeouts, the aristocratic toe flicks at the line, the tiny windows of opportunity that only reveal themselves as they’re closing. Even in a quarterfinal such as this, even when I haven’t yet decided who to root for, I find myself on my feet, my heart climbing into my throat.
After the race, J.R. Celski, the United States’ great hope in short-track, doesn’t look at the camera. Celski doesn’t smile, doesn’t mention his pal Macklemore, or the event he’s best known for, a 2009 crash in which his skate sliced right through the Kevlar and nearly severed his femoral artery. Instead, Celski confesses that he’s been battling a cold. This announcement fails to provoke a sympathetic response from either the interviewer or the experts up in the booth. The message is clear: you’re an Olympian, don’t complain about having a cold. Talk about the other stuff.
In the next quarterfinal, the backstory comes so fast I almost don’t hear it.
“Harry Potter glasses … three gold medals … knee injury … missed Vancouver … a forgotten skater. So he has moved to Russia, gained Russian citizenship, and now, skates here in Sochi in a Russian skinsuit. And physically he looks so different.”
“He’s different, Terry,” says Apolo Ohno. “He’s bigger, ten pounds heavier, more explosive. I like to say Viktor Ahn is a different athlete now.”
It’s not until the race is over, and Viktor Ahn has sped through to the semis, that the words “Russian” and “skinsuit” and all those “differents” resume their flutter kick through my own personal tape delay, that I begin to wonder if Apolo Ohno and the man named Terry are really saying what I think they’re saying. Doper. Cheater.
In the final, Celski takes the lead about halfway through, but once there, lacks the aggressive front-running he’s known for and finishes fourth. Ahn wins the bronze, Russia’s first-ever medal in short-track. A few nights later he goes on to win gold in the 1,000. In 2006, Ahn Hyun-soo was a South Korean national hero. Eight years later, Viktor Ahn is a Russian national hero.
“The athlete’s body is a precipice,” writes Geoff Dyer, “and victory involves advancing close to—and even beyond—its edge.”
“Not every person who breathes in Legionella germs will get Pontiac fever,” I learn on www.drugs.com. Which explains why my friends who joined me in the soaking pool are walking around, right as rain. “Those who do get sick may have any of the following … ” I skim over the obvious symptoms — the coughs, the chills, the upset stomach, the lack of appetite, thinking yep, yep, sounds familiar — and it’s not until I reach the bottom of the page that the blood drains from my head. “Some people may experience problems thinking clearly and trouble falling asleep,” I read. “Some people may still feel tired, or have problems thinking clearly for a few months after feeling better.”
The Sochi Olympics are getting increasingly ugly for US speedskating. After the first wave of failures, skaters begin complaining about their fancy new Under Armour skinsuits. The problem, suggest the skaters, is that rather than being more aerodynamic, the suits are actually increasing drag.
Am I thinking clearly right now? I begin to wonder. Perhaps my decision to eat Brussels sprouts for breakfast is evidence of a person thinking unclearly? The towel in bed — that was a dumb idea, wasn’t it? Is every decision I make for the next few months going to be poisoned by my Pontiac fever? Will I alienate friends and family, lose my job, write thousands of words of garbage? Or even worse, will I not get around to writing thousands of words of garbage?
There is, however, a certain satisfaction in putting a name on what’s been ailing us. We peel off our skinsuits in disgust, wave them at our countrymen, saying, Look at these bumps, these ventilation flaps. Go on. Step inside. Find out what it’s like in here.
No matter if we’ve competed in long- or short-track, poetry or prose, 10,000 meters or 500, for the women’s team, or the men’s — everyone has underperformed. We all have an uncanny knowledge of what our bodies are capable of. We know what an 8.5 second lap feels like. We know the effort involved in advancing through the qualifying rounds, the importance of saving gas for the final paragraph. Most importantly, we know — or rather, we thought we knew — what it would take to medal. And yet, how many of us have won?
While waiting for the Olympics to come back on, I’ve been working my way through the “Up” Series, the lifelong documentary which checks in every seven years on 14 Brits, hand-picked as children way back in 1964 to provide a sort of cross-section of society. In 42 Up, the subjects are asked what effect being in the films has had on their lives. Sue, one of the trio of working-class women, admits, “Before the filming starts, you think, What on earth have I done with seven years? What can I possibly say? And you panic and you think, I should have done something, I should have done something dramatic.” Her face lights up. “I was hoping I would win the lottery last night so that I could come on and say —” she shrugs, her smile fading, “ —but life’s not like that.”
And now, US speedskating is saying, Hang on, oops, maybe the problem isn’t the skinsuits. Maybe actually we went about our preparation all wrong, maybe we shouldn’t have done all our training at altitude when Sochi is, in fact, below sea level. Maybe we should have taken the thicker air into account, the fact that each stroke will feel that much soggier, each opponent that much more daunting. It’s probably not fair of us to expect J.R. Celski to fight his way around the heavier, more explosive Viktor Ahn in tomorrow’s 500 meters. But we’ll tune in. We’ll stand up. We’ll hope.
As for Ahn, those extra 10 pounds are finally making sense. He isn’t a cheater. He’s just a man who has done his homework. Skating in Sochi isn’t about being graceful or lithe; it’s about forcing yourself through the mud.
I don’t write every day. Often, after finishing a project, a month or two will go by before I manage to sit down and open a new Word document. When I finally do, I feel a little bit like Sue. I want to believe that something has happened during my time away — some new joy or disappointment — that has made me a different person. A better writer. This time around, I have to admit that I was sort of hoping it would be Pontiac fever. That Pontiac fever would help me write with a hotter engine. That the lack of clarity would be beguiling, instead of annoying. But the truth is, I might not have Pontiac fever. It might just be the flu. So who knows. I’m not an Olympian. I don’t get to take off this skinsuit.
image: AP Photo/Bernat Armangue