The build up to the current Winter Olympics in Sochi was justifiably dominated by coverage of the Putin regime’s scapegoating of the LGBT+ community. Putin’s policy is designed to strengthen his grip on power by solidifying his traditional base of domestic support in opposition to the more liberal elements within Russia. His tactics are not too dissimilar to those of Sir Alex Ferguson who, in many a title run-in would scapegoat referees, the media or the public at large in order to strengthen the resolve of his dressing room in opposition to an imagined threat from outside (note the Ferguson-Putin comparisons end there!).The Russian President will have anticipated the negative coverage of the western media and the release of Pussy Riot was a perfectly timed PR stunt designed to take the sting out of protests in the run up to the games. In this article though, I want to put the policies of a pseudo-tyrant to one side and comment upon why the Winter Olympics are a treat for any sports fan.
Winter Olympic sports are generally spectacular. They look great on TV and you don’t have to be an expert to enjoy them. An example being the Men’s Moguls final on Monday evening- all you need to know is that they have to glide down the bumps well, perform some aerial stunts and finish within 25 seconds. This is then to be followed by an X-Factor type moment whilst the scores are being totted up and we look forward to the absolute delight or utter dejection of the skier at a seemingly random number that appears on the screen. Similarly, although less of a spectacle, we can instantly recognise curling as bowls on ice. The tension though is no less palpable; I’m genuinely gutted if GB loses the hammer without scoring at least two points.
“Plucky Brits” are everywhere to be seen at the Winter Olympics. The participation of British athletes in the Winter Olympics is a unique viewing experience for a patriotic sports fan. Curling and Women’s Skeleton Bob aside, (the latter being a sport in which Team GB has bafflingly become a powerhouse) British athletes are not expected to be in the medal hunt. It is therefore all the more amazing when they do get on the podium. Jenny Jones’ bronze medal in the Slopestyle will prove to be one of the sporting highlights of the year, an event enhanced by commentary reminiscent of Sky Sports’ much missed Fanzone. British winter Olympic athletes are remarkable not only because they are participating in minority sports where there are very few facilities (does anyone know of their local Slopestyle Terrain Park?), but they are competing against athletes from nations where such sports have a much broader level of participation.
A third reason the winter Olympics is such a joy is my personal favourite sport of the games, short-track speed skating. The way the skaters move looks so effortless. During the longer races, they will skate with their hands behind their backs, adding an extra air of nonchalance and mystery to the proceedings. There is everything to love about this human version of speedway racing, where one wrong move can leave both a skater and their fellow competitors sliding out of the race into a heavily padded wall (a process that I’ve always suspected is quite fun). Such a slide was performed by British athlete Jack Whelbourne in the final of the 1500m on Monday. Whelbourne though disappointingly failed to eliminate any of his fellow competitors, unlike a Korean skater in the 1000m final in Salt Lake City. Short-track speed skating is one of the most exciting sports inside or outside of the winter games and deserves your attention. Watching Team GB’s Elise Christie qualify from Monday’s heat will prove the point.
The Winter Olympics is packed full of high-octane and often dangerous sports that only get airtime every four years. The games demonstrate that it is the essence of sport itself that is intriguing, not the manner in which it is expressed. You may not have an undying passion for the Skeleton Bob, but watching Shelley Rudman and Lizzy Yarnold on the ice on Friday will be sure to have you on the edge your seat as they hurtle down at (literally) break-neck speeds.