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A competitor like Mikaela Shiffrin is why we watch sports

Mikaela Shiffrin celebrates after an alpine ski, women’s World Cup slalom, in Åre, Sweden, on March 11, 2023.

Mikaela Shiffrin celebrates after an alpine ski, women’s World Cup slalom, in Åre, Sweden, on March 11, 2023.
Photo: Alessandro Trovati (AP)

I know I’m one of the few sports writers leaping to my keyboard to riff on Mikaela Shiffrin breaking the all-time record for wins — earning No. 87 in Åre, Sweden, and passing Ingemar Stenmark on Saturday — but I wanted to issue this as a reminder that Olympic success is kind of bullshit. The last image the sports world had of Shiffrin was her sobbing after crashing her way off of China’s rinky-dink, half-covered ski mountain at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

It’s an outlier, and a one-off. Her dominance resumed as soon as she got back to courses and conditions befitting World Cup skiing. Yet the casual fan isn’t locked into niche sports. Olympic medals were ringz culture before we even knew ringz culture existed. Think about if players were only allowed to win championships every fourth year. Those other three don’t matter, because this event is the only one that does.

The experts said Lionel Messi needed a World Cup win to cement his status as the GOAT, and we agreed instead of appreciating the fact that he has enough awards and hardware to fill an apartment building. In sports, everything must be ranked, measured, and sorted in its proper place. The point of sports is competition, and everyone is either a winner or a loser.

If that’s all that matters, then why do we have Hall of Fames or All-NBA teams or All-Star games with players who don’t have titles? The reasons for watching sports and playing them aren’t the same. If the competitors had their way, they’d beat the brakes off the opposition and the audience would be disinterested by halftime.

The reason we watch sports is to see who wins but also for the drama, the storylines, and the world-class athleticism. If it was only about the outcome, you’d just wait for the ESPN app to tell you the final. We want to take in the greatness, the awe-inspiring talent. Zion Williamson dunks. Bo Jackson runs.

And Mikaela Shiffrin ripping up an alpine course.

An appreciation of professional winter athletes

The reason I care about Shiffrin is because my personal favorite sport (activity?) is snowboarding. Sitting on the lift and seeing someone going mach five in and out of the trees like a well-trained James Bond body double is so much fun. I’ve hit super high speeds according to the app on my phone, but I’ve also ridden the runs that Shiffrin and Co. are straight-lining it down, and it’s no joke.

The same thing for the people at the X Games. There’s zero way of contextualizing how big those jumps are and how steep the terrain is until you see it in person. The mental fortitude it takes to do the feats they do — inches away from hospital beds at every turn — is fucking badass. And that’s how I’d describe Shiffrin.

She’s a fucking badass. The fucking badass. She’s out there competing against only herself. Very few of her competitors are even close.

So don’t let medalz culture sway you because she’s the winningest skier in the sport and will go down as the GOAT when she hangs up her ski boots. 



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