Sunday, 7 March 2010


Because of moving house, I didn't get to see much of the Vancouver Winter Olympics, though I did manage to watch the hockey final, which was an exceptionally good game, marred only by the BBC's decision to have a Canadian colour man on the broadcast, and a Canadian skier (?) providing analysis in the studio, along with host Steve Cram (who kept telling they audience that, although they wouldn't understand what they were seeing, they ought to watch anyway) and hockey expert British rower Matthew Pinsent! When the game went to overtime, no one knew it would be played four on four, instead of five on five, which would likely help Canada's big stars, since the US would be less able to give them extra attention; sure enough Sidney Crosby, quiet in the first three periods, got the game winner.

What was really strange, however, was the presentation, encouraged by Canadians themselves, of their team, overwhelming pre-Olympic favourites for the gold, laden with NHL stars, and playing at home before a partisan crowd, as underdogs to a USA team picked for fourth or fifth before the games started. It was also extremely odd to see this portrayed as the greatest moment in Canadian hockey history, when that was surely Paul Henderson's goal in game eight of the original 1972 series against the Soviet Union, giving Canada a come-from-behind 4-3-1 vicotry in the series, thanks to a come-from-behind win in that final game in Moscow. But that happened nearly 40 years ago, and memory today extends no further than the delete button on teenagers computers.

In Vancounver, the Americans beating Canada 5-3 in the round robin was probably the worst thing that could have happened for the US, but the game certainly lived up to both countries' expectations: the whole of Canada dependent on the win to preserve their sense of national identity, and a thin sliver of the USA that actually follows hockey looking on with bemused disappointment. American diffidence to hockey is part and parcel of the general problem with the Winter Olympics, the games global warming might render irrelevant to even those few countries who now dominate. The games are full of sports that require not only winter, but specialist kinds of winter: mountains, bobsled runs, ski jumps, hockey rinks, speed skating rinks, half-pipes and the like. It's no coincidence most American speed skaters come from an area between Chicago and West Allis, Wisconsin. Last time I looked there were only 9 or 10 Olympic quality luge runs in the world, and when the Canadians refuse to let anyone but Canadians train on theirs, it gives the home side a definite advantage.

In a country like Britain, which prides itself in playing 'world wide' sports but ignores most of the ones that aren't cricket, rugby, football, or lawn bowls, this means coverage of the Winter Games has the feel of the first day of foreign language class in high school. Every Olympic games is like that; the media who cover tend not to be 'beat writers' on the various sports (largely because most countries don't have papers who devote beats to thinks like skeleton bob) and they same stories always crop up. At the winter games that means either (a) too much snow or (b) not enough snow, and at any games, transportation nightmares, which start getting written the first time a media shuttle is late.

When Amy Williams won her gold in skeleton, she became the lead on the news reports, who had to explain what skeleton bob actually was. And spectacular as her performance was, the Brits missed the element of the East German about it (the old DDR used to concentrate on medal intensive winter sports where technology could help, and Williams' top-secret sled was built at a cost of over £100,000), though they did follow the NBC-style 'human interest' lead in trying to create a desperate rivalry between her and her teammate. Audiences can't understand the .001 difference between two bob runs, but they do understand cat fights.

I did get to watch the women's Super G, which was also a fascinating race. The best skier on the day was Julie Mancuso, who went down first on a treacherous course, and held the lead for a long while. Her cat-fight rival, Lindsay Vonn, skiing 17th, then took the lead, before losing it later to Austria's Andrea Fischbacher and Slovenia's Tina Maze. I thought Vonn may have played it a bit safe on her run, but the reality was that the course had been set by the Austrian coach, with a four-deep set of skiers, and the early starters faced faster conditions without any knowledge of how they would play out. By the time the gold and silver medalists went, the course had slowed down a bit, and they were well aware of exactly how to approach the most dangerous gates. It was classic Alpine gamesmanship, but it went unremarked in commentary.

I loved covering the Winter Olympics (Lake Placid 1980, Sarajevo 1984, Calgary 1988) and the winter sports circuit--most recently doing commentary on almost all the sports at the Winter University Games in Austria a few years ago. The atmosphere is usually more relaxed than the summer games, and I can appreciate most of the sport, even the ones where people in bondage costumes race against the clock. I get tired of watching the ski jumping jury decide it's too dangerous whenever a non-favourite jumps too far, and cancels his jump and moves the start down. I worry about figure skating, the bowling-alley ballet where sequins and lipstick are part of the required equipment, Liberace seems to be the aesthetic icon, the 'choreography' never seems to match the skating (except occasionally, as with Torvill and Dean, in ice dance), and the judging seems as fair as Madam Lafarge in Tale Of Two Cities. Snowboarding, the only sport where marijuana is a performance-enhancing drug, at least gives us snowboard cross, which along with short-track speed skating, helps fill the void left by the demise of roller derby. And then there's biathalon, which would improved greatly if the skiers shot at each other, rather than targets.

But the big question is who, in the end, 'won' the Winter Olympics, which is supposed to be all about taking part, and not about nationalistic chauvinism. Hah. Try taking the anthems out of the medal ceremonies. Canadians are claiming 'victory' thanks to their 14 gold medals, the triumph of quality over quantity. Using the gold-silver-bronze points systems, the US triumphs, as you'll see from the top three here:

USA (9 gold 15 silver 13 bronze) 5-3-1 points: 103 3-2-1 points: 70
Canada (14-7-5) 5-3-1: 96 points 3-2-1: 61
Germany (10-13-7) 5-3-1: 96 points 3-2-1: 63

But the real Olympic champions, in terms of medals per population, were Norway, with 9 gold, 8 silver, and 6 bronze, for fourth place in the points table, and, in the 5-3-1 system, one point for every 61,000 Norwegians. Take that, all you temperate zone softies!

No comments :