Sport on TV: Each ice age revives thrills and chills of near disaster

Her flight path was spectacular and elegant, but her landing was excruciating
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The Independent Online

In Monday's Olympic figure skating pairs (BBC2), it wasn't so much a case of drawn in as grossed out, thanks to the multiple slow-motion repeats of the moment the Chinese made their first foray into the sport of dwarf-tossing (well, Zhang Dan does seem to be about 3ft 6in).

It was an extraordinary moment: the towering Russians Tatiana Totmianina and Maxim Marinin (no dwarf-tossers they) had already made sure of gold, and the Zhangs were in prime position for silver. Near the beginning of their routine, they were shaping up for a triple quad salchow (an expert writes) when Zhang Hao, who's built like a second-row forward (what's Chinese for "brick outhouse"?), picked up his tiny colleague and spun her through the air.

Her flight path was spectacular and elegant, but her landing was excruciating, spreadeagled, her knee crashing and twisting into the ice. As Hao picked her up a wave of applause swept round the arena in sympathy at the withdrawal of the plucky Chinese. Then as Zhang Dan skated round, feeling her way back in, it gradually became apparent that they intended to carry on. Cue gasps of horror in the Maume household.

"But what will the referee say?" Barry Davies asked (ah, "Barry Davies" - it's too long since I've been able to write those words). It turned out he must have said, "Have a rest for as long as you like, then carry on."

And so they did, Dan's face pinched with pain as they secured second place, and it wasn't until she was safely off the ice and into her coach's arms that the crying started. "They're like that, the Chinese," my partner, who's read Wild Swans, informed us.

They brought it on themselves, Totmianina said afterwards. Even in the warm-up they'd been too pumped-up, nearly running down her and Maxim. The Zhangs' coach, Bin Yao, was full of sympathy. "They were just standing there," he said. "They should have got out of the way."

Controversy raged, apparently, at the way the Zhangs were given so long to recover. Personally, I think it's irrelevant: I'll never shake off the feeling that the judges decide beforehand where the medals are going, and I can't find it in myself to refer to any pursuit that depends on such subjective evaluations as a proper sport. I realise that that begs a whole load of questions - what about boxing, where notoriously partial judges decide whether a punch counts or not, or football, which depends on the viewpoint of a man of unknown parentage in need of a pair of spectacles? - but frankly I don't care. Ice skating is fascinating once every four years; but it's not a sport. Discuss.

Following the mad, surreal opening ceremony last Friday (I didn't actually see it but I stand by what I say), the Winter Olympics have done their usual job of providing unexpected pleasures. In Salt Lake City four years ago it was the curling, and Britain's very own Colin Hendry lookalike Rhona Martin. This time round, so far we've the slightly bonkers skier Chemmy Alcott finishing 11th in the downhill - "I like all the bumpy bits. It's just that there are bits where it's so flat and straight and I'm, like, 'Dur, bring on the rest' " - while in the studio there's been peerless punditry from Graham Bell, despite the evidence of the ever-expanding bags under his eyes and general Keith Richards demeanour that he's also a peerless party animal.

The biggest discovery of the Games for me, though, has been the completely wild debut event, snowboard cross, in which fields of four race along a tightly banked 1,000-metre track. I think I must have seen more overtaking in one heat than in a lifetime - quite literally - of watching Formula One. An American, Seth Westcott, won on Thursday, and his coach said afterwards, "I was screaming the entire time." Now that's a sport.

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