Ten of the best from Vancouver

So, that’s a wrap for the 21st Olympic Winter Games. Despite having to deal with varying weather conditions – sometimes too much snow, sometimes not enough – and the death of Georgian luger Nodar KumaritashviliVancouver put on an impressive show, resulting in a haul of 14 gold medals, more than any country has ever achieved at a single Winter Olympics. ‘Own the Podium’, indeed.

They were perhaps a tad over-sensitive to some of the media coverage, with the UK in particular seemingly causing offence. (Don’t they realise we’re British? We complain about everything. If complaining was an Olympic sport, we would be a shoo-in for the gold medal every time.) But let’s face it, if you are an Olympic host city you’re there to be poked at, and I’m sure people – many of them British – will be lining up to take the piss out of London 2012 as well. It’s nothing personal; no need to take it so seriously.

Anyhow, here is my personal top 10 from the past two-and-a-bit-weeks. In no particular order:

1. Snowboarding, men’s half-pipe

Shaun White was born with a congenital heart defect which required two open-heart surgeries before his first birthday. But he is also a god-like figure among snowboarders, a man who is literally capable of things other mortals can only dream of: he was the first to land back-to-back double corks and remains the only man ever to successfully land a body varial frontside 540 in competition. (No, I don’t know what they are either.) So it was no surprise when he destroyed the field in the half-pipe final, producing a first run which was, even to my untrained eye, considerably better than any of his rivals and gave him a score high enough to comfortably secure back-to-back golds in the event. That afforded him the luxury of unveiling a new trick he has christened the ‘Tomahawk’ – a Double McTwist 1260, don’t you know – capping a second run which blew even his first effort out of the water. The man soars higher – literally – than anyone in the history of his sport. Legend.

2. Women’s skeleton

As an event, skeleton bob received one-third of the total £6m funding for Britain’s Winter Olympics team, having been targeted as a medal-winning opportunity since its introduction in 2002. (Alex Coomber won bronze there, with Shelley Rudman adding silver four years ago.) It turned out to be money well spent in Vancouver, even though Rudman put herself out of contention with an error-strewn first run. Amy Williams, who had previously won precisely none of her 39 World Cup events, shattered the track record twice and finished with an aggregate advantage of over half a second – nearly 20 metres – to win Britain’s only gold (indeed, only medal) of the Games. It was a remarkable achievement when you consider the UK’s entire infrastructure for skeleton comprises a single concrete start track in Bath. The rest was purely down to Williams’ athleticism and bravery. Bravo.

3. Short-track speed skating, men’s 1500m final

As well as being a legendary figure in his own event, the American Apolo Anton Ohno surely has one of the best names in any sport. By finishing second in the final here, Ohno added to an impressive CV which now boasts eight Olympic medals and the title of 2007 champion on the TV show Dancing With The Stars. Entering the final turn of the final lap, the three South Korean skaters occupied the medal positions, only for Lee Ho-Suk and Sung Si-Bak to collide, moving Ohno up from fourth to second. Last corner crashes in the short-track events are not infrequent occurrences, but even so this qualified as a cock-up of colossal proportions, however, there could not have been a more worthy beneficiary than Ohno.

4. Men’s & women’s ski cross

A new event to the Olympics this year, ski cross has been variously described as a hybrid of many different sports but I think it’s best summed up by my wife Heather’s description of “BMX racing on skis”. Four skiers hurtle down a course of bumps, jumps and turns in a frantic attempt to reach the bottom first. Races frequently feature shoulder-to-shoulder action, gutsy overtaking moves and, of course, a good smattering of crashes. Switzerland’s Michael Schmid dominated an exciting men’s event by the simple expedient of being consistently quickest out of the starting gate and then keeping his rivals well behind him. The women’s event, won by Canada’s Ashleigh McIvor, was just as good. Visually spectacular and full of the excitement that comes from multiple competitors squabbling over the same bit of snow at the same time, this was a welcome addition to the Olympic pantheon.

5. Skiing, women’s downhill

Favourite Lindsey Vonn took the gold, but this was memorable for the sheer number of competitors who crashed out, including one who barely made it out of the starting gate before going down. (Fortunately, no one was seriously hurt.) In fairness, difficult conditions, postponements and curtailed practice runs did little to help, but there is still something inherently amusing about watching professionals coming unstuck in much the same way a weekend skier might.

6. Luge, men’s singles

German lugers have historically owned this event, but few have dominated a competition as utterly as Felix Loch did here. Loch, the son of the head of the German federation no less, posted the fastest time – by at least a tenth of a second – on all four runs. (Compatriot David Moller was also a model of consistency, being the second-fastest man on each run en route to winning silver.) After Kumaritashvili’s death, it was a joy to watch all the competitors flying fearlessly down the track at speeds touching 145 kph (90 mph). Spellbinding stuff.

7. Men’s aerials

In short: ski down a slope and take off from a ramp at speeds in excess of 60kph, perform a succession of crazy, twisting somersaults which make competitors look as if they are tumbling in an invisible gyroscope, land (hopefully), repeat. Or think of it as skiing’s equivalent of the gymnastics floor routine. The women’s competition was spectacular enough; the men’s even more so, with everyone performing variations on jumps which combine three somersaults with four twists. The USA’s Jeret Peterson even added an extra twist, performing a full/triple full/full with his final jump: that’s a somersault with a twist followed by another with three twists and then a final one with a single twist again. It has to be seen to be believed; even in slow motion, it’s positively headache-inducing. And even that was only enough for silver.

8. Snowboarding, men’s parallel giant slalom

Competitors race in pairs over two legs,completing one run on each of two parallel courses. I loved the fact this was a proper head-to-head event and that you could clearly see different racers’ techniques and errors. Better still, both medal races provided great drama. In the bronze medal race, Russia’s Stanislav Detkov, looking to recover a first leg deficit, attempted to propel himself out of the start gate too soon and merely tumbled head-first over it. A comedy classic. In the gold medal race, Canada’s wonderfully-named Jasey Jay Anderson threw caution to the wind to overhaul Austria’s Benjamin Karl metres before the finish line. Anderson’s knife-edge commitment was clearly visible to the naked and inexpert eye; it was thrilling stuff.

9. Ice hockey, men’s final

More than any other, this was the gold medal most Canadians believed was theirs by right, and the fact that victory over their American neighbours would give the host nation their record 14th gold in the final event of these Games heightened the anticipation. And the match did not disappoint, with the US overcoming a 2-0 deficit when Zach Parise scored the tying goal with just 24 seconds remaining. In overtime, it fell to Canada’s main man – and NHL top scorer – Sidney Crosby to clinch the victory which sent an entire nation into delirium and put the stamp on a wildly successful Olympics for the hosts.

10. Moguls, men’s final

Just watching the moguls makes my knees ache. For the competitors, their entire Olympics is compressed into a single, high intensity, 23-24 second run of twisting turns, knee-pounding bumps and two aerials. The men’s final was particularly for producing Canada’s first gold medallist, Alexandre Bilodeau, igniting the gold rush which was to follow. But, for me, the most lasting image is of France’s Guilbaut Colas. Last man down the course, he celebrated arms aloft after completing what he assumed was at least a medal-winning run, only to face the cameras and discover he was only sixth. For fully five seconds, he looked like he had just been kicked in the teeth by his own mother wearing a pair of steel-capped boots, before finally regaining his composure and going to congratulate Bilodeau and the other medallists.

The image of the crestfallen Colas was a moment of raw emotion which encapsulated just how much winning means to the men and women who compete in Olympic sports, and how bitter the taste of defeat can be. And that, as much as the thrill and the spectacle of the events themselves, is why we keep coming back for more.

The Games of the 30th Olympiad will begin in London on July 27th, 2012. I can’t wait.

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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