By Chris Suellentrop
Back when the phrase "Olympic year" meant something, because the Winter and Summer Games were held in quick succession once every four years instead of being spread across the calendar biennially, the absurd snow-day festivities for rich athletes from Northern Europe, Canada, and the Canadian-ish corners of the United States were a nice appetizer for the real Olympics that came a few months later.
But beginning in 1994, when the Winter Olympics began to be held in the even-numbered years in between the Summer Olympics, the Hoth Games and the Hothletes who play in them ceased to serve their purpose as the warmup act for a quadrennial potlatch of amateur sports and heartwarming jingoism. Instead, the Winter Games have become the sports equivalent of a tapas restaurant, something that promises a full meal but whose essential nature is to leave you unsatisfied at the end. The Winter Olympics are the midterm congressional elections of sports, something that everyone knows is important and that the news media is obliged to cover dutifully, yet nonetheless is ignored and possibly even disdained by a broad swath of the public.
Fortunately, there's an easy fix for this problem, one that lets the Winter Olympics remain in its off-year position -- which is where the corporate sponsors who prop up the whole affair want it -- while also making the Olympics on Ice more multiracial, more geographically diverse and, most important, more entertaining. It's time to put basketball in the Winter Olympics where it belongs.
The Summer Olympics gets 41 sports, while the Winter Olympics is left with a paltry 15. Surely the bigger brother can share some of his largesse?
And of those 15 sports, only ice hockey is even a minor sport in the United States, which pays the most money (thanks to NBC) to televise the events. Luge, one of the core competitions of the Winter Games, is so obscurely goofy that it is used as a joke ("luge lessons") about Dr. Evil's ordinary childhood in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery -- a movie that was written by a hockey-loving Canadian. On Thursday night, Bob Costas and NBC showed so little confidence in the televised appeal of snowboarding, figure skating and skiing that the tape-delayed sports were interrupted for a discussion of Russian politics, a profile of the Queens, N.Y.-based designer of the Sochi opening ceremonies and a Costas tribute to Jay Leno.
Yet basketball, among the most popular sports in the world, is left out. And basketball is, make no mistake, a winter sport. It's played indoors. It was invented by James Naismith during a long New England winter in 1891 in Springfield, Mass. Naismith was a gym teacher who wanted to create a game that would keep his students active and occupied during the region's dreary, snowbound months. (Apparently luge wasn't doing the trick.)
So how did a winter sport, invented specifically so that the Snow People of Massachusetts would have something better to do than ice dancing, become a hallmark of the Summer Olympics?
The answer, of course, is Hitler. The Nazis hosted the first Olympics with basketball as a medal sport, in Berlin in August of 1936. It's high time that this crime against humanity was undone.
And while we're at it, why stop with basketball? Volleyball was invented only eight miles from Naismith's gym in Springfield. Like Naismith, William G. Morgan of Holyoke, Mass., was a YMCA gym teacher. In 1895, four years after Naismith invented basketball, Morgan observed the popularity of the game in the region and devised his own sport to be played indoors in the winter months.
That's right: The snow-and-ice games that dominate the Winter Olympics are so dull and are available to such a narrow band of the population that two internationally popular sports were invented in New England in the late 19th century to replace them. And somehow these sports are in the Summer Olympics. Demanding that snow and ice be a component of a winter sport is ridiculous, akin to insisting that every summer sport be played on sand or water. (The Summer Games can, however, keep beach volleyball.)
We should bring the Winter Olympics indoors where it belongs. Gymnastics! Arena football! Indoor soccer! Heck, competitive video games could be added to the mix. After all, it's inevitable that e-sports will eventually become Olympic medal events. We should ensure that the poor Winter Olympics aren't stuck with competitive matches of NHL '94 on the Sega Genesis and the snow levels from first-person shooters, while the Summer Olympics get everything else. (South Korea, where video games are practically the national pastime, is hosting the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. There's no better place to award the first gold medal for StarCraft.)
The best American athletes shouldn't be forced to train for the bobsled, like Herschel Walker in 1992, in order to participate in the Winter Olympics. Let's send LeBron James and Kevin Durant to Pyeongchang. Making basketball the 16th sport in the Winter Games will ensure that they come home winners, instead of lugers.
Chris Suellentrop is a contributing writer for The New York Times. He has written about sports for Grantland, Wired and Slate, where he once edited the sports section. This is his first article for Sports on Earth. Follow him on Twitter @suellentrop.