Winter Games cool Aussies' long hot summer

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Winter Olympics, by Chris JohnstonThe death of the Georgian luge competitor was a shocking introduction to the Winter Olympics, yet the main news of these Games is the warm temperature at the Vancouver resort hosting the competition. The men’s downhill skiing has already been postponed because of slushy conditions, and that is after snow has been trucked in.

Unsurprisingly, the spectre of climate change has ben invoked. I wonder if they said that in 1928 when the second ever winter games at St Moritz were faced with a thaw that forced the cancellation of the 10,000 m speed skating. My history book also says the 50 km cross-country skiing was held in 20 degree Celsius temperatures, and victory was based on who chose the best ski wax to cope with the slushy conditions.

Weather aside, the winter Olympics occupy an unusual place in our collective imagination. To most Australians, these Vancouver Olympics are a romantic escape from our hot, humid summer: two weeks of crisp, alpine scenery filled with breathtaking feats of skill.

They make for beautiful television — the whirr of skiers hurtling down the slopes, snowboarders doing somersaults in the air, skaters dancing ballet on the ice, the sheer madness of the luge as it defies gravity while tubing down the mountain.

And yet, in some important way, these disciplines feel more like recreation than competitive sport. That is not to demean them. On the contrary, the purity implied in that word 'recreation' endows skiing and its winter cousins with something special: a link with the original spirit and intention of sport.

That vibe starts with the organisation of the event itself. The host city doesn’t build a huge, showpiece stadium, nor does it present an opening spectacle on the same scale as the summer counterpart. In the absence of grandeur and ambition — no Water Cube or Birds Nest — there is an intimacy which focuses our attention on the sport rather than the spectacle.

These athletes train hard but they don't get messed up with drugs like runners or weightlifters, they become famous but not household names. The champions are sponsored but they don't receive the same money that Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt command. They are not commercialised to anything like the same degree that summer Olympians are.

The whole expression of their skill seems closer to youthful thrillseeking than serious competition, their daredevil antics not so far removed from my adolescent son last winter as he lurched towards a chairlift stanchion at Perisher Blue. For the first 20 m, try as he might to move away, his skis dragged him toward the big metal tower. 'Turn, turn, turn, you idiot', I swore to myself from up above. Somehow, at the last minute, he snowploughed away and avoided injury.

The next day he and another boy goaded each other on to new levels of risk. Distracted by the constant dares from his friend, my son left his ski poles trailing along on the chairlift. Suddenly we heard a long scraping sound and turned to see his poles bent by 45 degrees rendering them useless.

We laughed it off and he skied down the run in hot pursuit of his faster, more experienced companion. 'Don't do anything stupid', I said meekly. But that seems to be exactly the point of these winter pursuits: take an enjoyable pastime and ratchet up the adrenalin by taking life-threatening risks.

Of course, winter Olympians have sacrificed as much as swimmers or runners in preparation for their events, and suffer the same elation and heartbreak as anyone else. Yet their exploits do not linger in the memory, even in the northern hemisphere where winter recreation is a way of life.

Perhaps the best example of this contrast lies in the legends that grow out of the two Olympics. From summer, the enduring myths are created by people like Ian Thorpe, Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt for their superhuman achievements. Which names do we remember from the Winter Olympics? British skaters Torvill and Dean for their ballet on ice in 1984 and four years later, English ski jumper Eddie 'the Eagle' Edwards for finishing last in both jump events.

From a local perspective, nothing can top the moment in 2002 when Australian skater Steven Bradbury waltzed through a pack of fallen skaters to claim the gold medal in the 1000 m race at Salt Lake City, his face smitten with bemused joy.

Winter sport is about getting out in the cold, having fun and enjoying the aesthetics of the white wonderland. The Olympics are just that, and we should celebrate them for being so tuned to nature — even if they do have to truck in the snow.

Michael VisontayMichael Visontay is Editor-In-Chief of CathNews and lectures in Sport, Media and Culture at the University of NSW.

Topic tags: Torvill and Dean, Eddie 'the Eagle' Edwards, Steven Bradbury, Winter Olympics, Vancourver 2010



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Existing comments

It might be fun, but I am totally against Australia's involvement in Winter Olympics. Most of our team live overseas --- how 'Australian' are they? The taxpayer supports them to train in other countries for months. Winter Olympics are a foolish, expensive indulgence for this dry continent . Let the massive amount of money it takes be put into local sport and maximum people involvement.

June smith | 22 February 2010  

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