Why I’ve fallen for the Winter Olympics

It’s a bunch of sports that Brits don’t understand, yet our sports columnist finds himself glued to events in Vancouver.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

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This week’s guilty pleasure: the Winter Olympics. I ought to hate it but hell, I can’t get enough of it.

On the face of it the Winter Olympics is plain wrong. On so many levels. Here are a few reasons that immediately spring to mind:

  • Elitist sports In a recent article in The Times (London), ex-ping pong star Matthew Syed challenged the myth that the Olympics Games is a ‘bastion of meritocracy, where success is determined by hard work and talent rather than privilege’. As Syed points out: ‘When French aristocrat Baron Pierre de Coubertin founded the modern Olympic movement he packed it with sports affordable only to his fellow aristocrats, thus excluding the Third World’, wrote Syed (1). The summer Olympics at least has certain sports – like running and sprinting – at which athletes from poor countries can excel. The Winter Olympics has sod all. You need to be relatively affluent to excel at most Winter Olympic events.
  • Silly sports Some of the events at the Winter Games are just plain bonkers. Ski cross wouldn’t be out of place in Total Wipeout or Gladiators. Skeleton bob is verging on suicidal. And, then there’s curling. We’re all familiar with the ‘housework on ice’ jibe. It might be harsh but it’s true. At the risk of offending Scottish readers, how can you take any sport seriously where a broom is involved?
  • Non-sports At least curling has an objective scoring system. That’s more than can be said for figure skating and ski jumping. Both these events fail my litmus test of a proper sport because points are awarded for artistic merit.
  • Brits rarely win medals Eskimos? Yes. Scandanavians? Yes. Brits? No way. We don’t really do snow or ice. When it snows in Norway everyone gets their skis and toboggans out. In Britain, the trains break down, we crash our cars and we fall over a lot.
  • Austrians win lots of medals Nazis and Josef Fritzl’s dungeons apart, I’ve got nothing against Austria. Honestly. Mozart was a genius. Apfelstrudel is delicious. The Austro-Hungarian empire is in my top-10 list of all-time greatest empires. But you do really have to question the validity of a sporting festival in which Austria wins more medals than Australia or China.

To recap: the Winter Olympics shouldn’t be fun. So, why am I loving it? Why, for example, did I stay up late to watch the snowboard cross men’s final – a sport I hadn’t even heard of before last week? I think there are a number of reasons.

Firstly, there are the crashes. There are loadsa crashes, some spectacular. Snowboard cross and short-track speed skating, in particular, are absolute crash fests. The winner isn’t necessarily the best, but the luckiest. I’m not suggesting that watching people get hurt is enjoyable. It isn’t. The death of the Georgian luge competitor Nodar Kumaritashvili was tragic. But luge – sledding to you and me – wouldn’t be half as thrilling if the sport was risk free. The point is to go as fast as possible with the competitors risking life and limb. In an excellent riposte to the finger-pointing that followed the Kumaritashvili’s death, Times sports writer Simon Barnes wrote: ‘If we blame anything, we must blame the human spirit. Dangerous sports are not supposed to be a soft option. They are enthralling because of that whiff of danger.’

Secondly, there is the shared national experience factor. The Brits might be rubbish at Winter Olympic events. We don’t understand half of these so-called sports. But we can’t resist a national sport-related love-in. If we’re in with a sniff of a medal the whole nation tunes in. Nobody had heard of Amy Williams last week. There were no heated debates about the skeleton bob event around the nation’s watercoolers. Hell, if asked to explain what the skeleton bob is, most of us would be hard pressed to do so. But, after winning Britain’s first individual gold in Vancouver, Amy Williams has become a national treasure overnight.

It was the same when the GB women’s curling team won gold in 2002. Nearly six million TV viewers tuned in to watch the final. We put aside our suspicions that this wasn’t a proper sport and cheered on Rhona Martin’s gals to Olympic glory. The viewing figures for the 2002 curling final are, however, dwarfed by the staggering 24million people that tuned in to watch Torvill and Dean win ice-skating gold in 1984.

Ultimately, the main reason these obscure, elitist and sometimes downright silly sports can captivate us is that, though we neither understand nor excel at them, they all contain the basic, universal tenets of sporting competition. Human beings striving for excellence, pushing themselves to the limits, fighting to be the best: all these ingredients can be found in even the weirdest of events.

As with Total Wipeout, the events might be a bit bizarre, but once we’ve grasped the basic objectives, we’re easily seduced by the thrill of competition. We might not understand the technicalities or tactics, but we can still recognise the essential citius, altius, fortius in most Winter Olympic events (though I still struggle with figure skating). The point of a race, whether it’s on skis or skates, is to cross the finish line ahead of the other guys. The point of the Alpine skiing or the sliding events is to be the fastest. The point of ice hockey or curling is to outscore your opponents. These are simple, universal concepts. And even if the dizzy heights of sporting excellence aren’t scaled, there is always the spectacle of someone tumbling arse over tit to enjoy.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Duleep will be speaking at a Football Supporters Federation event, Sit Down, Shut Up: Are Football Supporters Discriminated Against?, on Thursday 4 March at 7pm at the Vibe Bar in Brick Lane, London, E1.

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