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Risk and spectacle in glorious high-definition

For a couple of weeks every four years, I sit transfixed in front of the TV watching a collection of seven sports, the vast majority of which I haven’t followed at all in the past four years and will probably not follow for the next four years either.

No, not the Summer Olympics. I’m at least passingly familiar with the key events and personalities in several of the summer version’s 26 sports. I’m talking, of course, about the Winter Olympics, which kicked off in Vancouver on Friday night.

From events in and around Vancouver and Whistler over the last few days, you could easily be forgiven for thinking the host city was somewhat cursed. Firstly, the weather conditions have been diabolical: depending where you have been and when, there has either been insufficient snow (the organisers have had to ship in tens of thousands of tons already), too much snow or too much rain – a combination of the two causing the postponement of the men’s downhill skiing (which is to the winter games what the men’s 100 metres is to the summer edition), or, on occasion, impenetrable fog.

Then, of course, there was the tragic death of 21 year old Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili in a practice run at Whistler, an accident quickly blamed by the authorities on “pilot error”, who then proceeded to make hasty changes to the course to reduce speed and increase safety without consultation with any of the competitors. Make of that what you will.

And then there has been the pressure and opprobrium which the Canadians have brought on themselves. A far from unsuccessful Olympic nation in its own right, the albatross hanging around Canada’s neck from failing to win a single gold medal as the host of two previous Games – Montreal in the summer of 1976, Calgary in the winter of 1988 – has weighed heavily on the country’s psyche in the build-up to Vancouver, and one of the side-effects of its ‘Own The Podium’ programme – highly restricted access to the venues for non-Canadian competitors – has drawn heavy criticism from many quarters for going against the Olympic spirit

To top it all off, there have also been two separate clashes in the city of Vancouver between police and an anti-capitalism group called the Olympics Resistance Network. Unsavoury, to say the least.

But all of the above makes no difference to me. I love the Winter Olympics – in some ways more so than the Summer ones.

Why? It can be summed up in two words: risk and spectacle.

There is a large element of physical jeopardy to many of the sports on display in Vancouver this fortnight which is absent in the vast majority of Summer Olympic sports (boxing and equestrianism being two obvious exceptions). Okay, so the risks in curling are pretty minimal – although I suppose dropping one of the stones on your foot would be quite painful – but the consequence of making even a minuscule error in any of the Winter Olympics’ high-speed events could easily be a broken limb or, as we have already seen, worse. The risks are high, and somehow more visceral than sports such as Formula 1 where cocooning, space-age monocoques and expansive tracks tend to downplay the extreme risks involved in motor sport.

And with large, high-definition TVs in many of our homes, coupled to super slow-motion replays, we now have a technological platform which allows us to fully appreciate the spectacle of some amazing telegenic events.

The luge is a case in point; an event whose sense of theatre has only been heightened by Kumaritashvili’s death. Even with the men’s event moved 176 metres down to the women’s start line, avoiding the steepest section of track at corner two (which has a 20 percent gradient), the fastest sliders were still exceeding 145 kph (about 90 mph), while lying flat on their back, feet first, on what is effectively a high-tech tea tray on runners. At that speed, and experiencing lateral g forces similar to what a fighter pilot might undergo in combat, competitors are at the very limit of human ability as peripheral vision starts to blur and darken. Let’s just say it’s not exactly the most comfortable or safe way to travel. Utmost respect goes to a group of Olympians for competing in this event even in ‘normal’ circumstances, let alone on a track which has already proven lethal.

And the TV coverage of the luge event has, for perhaps the first time, truly done the event justice. Crisp, high-def images show each competitor flashing in and out of shot in stunning detail, conveying a frightening and spectacular sense of speed which was simply impossible on older, smaller cathode-ray sets. Luge is just about the fastest sport you can participate in without the assistance of an internal combustion engine. We’ve always known that. In HD, you can really see it and get as close to experiencing it as the vast majority of people ever will (or would want to).

Look across the schedule for the next two weeks, and you will not be short of visual treats. We have already seen the luge, moguls and the first of the speed skating (think demolition derbies on ice – what’s not to like?) and ski jump events (the super slo-mo replays of take-offs are simply stunning). And then we have the rest of the sliding events (bobsleigh and skeleton bob), the alpine skiing and the snowboard events. (And, for those who prefer more pedestrian pursuits, there’s always the curling.)

Risk and spectacle. Great competition. And being able to watch lots of snow and ice without having to spend hours clearing your own driveway. What more could a sports fan ask for? It’s times like this that make me really appreciate HD.
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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

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