Winter Olympics 2014: Boarders, bobs and bowling on ice - what to watch in Sochi
From the suicidal lunacy of the skeleton to hushed brushing of curling – not to mention the madness of slopestyle snowboarding – Tom Peck selects the best of the Games for the couch potato with ice in their veins
The BBC is quite right to point out, in its Winter Olympics trailer in which Charles Dance appears as the rumbling malevolent voice of nature, that in Sochi it is not just the small matter of the other competitors and the difficulties of Russian bureaucracy that must be conquered, but the cold earth itself, at its most unforgiving.
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” pondered Franklin D Roosevelt on the National Mall in 1932, blissfully unaware of what was coming. They are words that will need to ring in the ears of the extraordinarily unhinged men and women of the Winter Games over the coming fortnight. How else would they commit themselves to doing such utterly stupid things?
Question marks have to hang over an event in which Great Britain’s greatest ever Olympian can be beaten by a faded boy-band star and stand-up comedian with an eating addiction.
But that is what happened when the four men of Channel 4’s winter sports reality show The Jump took on the skeleton. In first and second place Ritchie from 5ive and Marcus Brigstocke, in third and last cricketer Darren Gough and Sir Steve Redgrave.
A little absurdly, Team GB have the reigning Olympic champion, Amy Williams, and the previous two World Cup winners, Lizzy Yarnold and Shelley Rudman, the last two of whom are competing in this Olympics. That veritable British dominance is, however, in no way connected to the odd fact that the Brits can claim to have invented the sport, on the Cresta Run in St Moritz.
It’s like the luge, except it’s headfirst, which might seem crazier, but with that seeming disadvantage comes the benefit of being able to see where you’re going. Even Ritchie from 5ive reached upwards of 60mph, grunting as he did so.
At a training run before the World Cup last year, Yarnold blacked out two-thirds of the way down as she came out of a corner under intense G-force, later nonchalantly explaining there was “just too much pressure on my brain. I couldn’t take it so I just switched off”. Right.
The world’s most famous snowboarder, America’s Shaun White, pulled out on Wednesday after injuring his wrist. The favourite, Norway’s Torstein Horgmo, broke his ankle earlier in the week, so he’s out too. Two of the women, a Slovene and a Finn, are also out injured.
These are the facts that for many will serve as the introduction to the deliciously mad sport of slopestyle snowboarding. Few are the sports that owe their breaking into mainstream culture to video games – usually it is the other way around – but it is not an exaggeration to say that the first men and women to win Olympic gold for slopestyle when it debuts in Sochi will owe a debt of gratitude to the Sony PlayStation.
If anything, it is a miracle that it has taken 18 years since the Cool Boarders game was released for it to find its way into the Olympic fold.
Most boys who have been over the age of 12 at some point between then and now could tell you it is, above all, about looking cool. Powering down the mountain, lifting off and attempting an ever more complex array of jumps, twists, spins, rotations, somersaults and grabs.
The near-impossible joypad button combinations of the PlayStation game are fraught with peril enough, though one imagines that bears little comparison with the real thing, as you fly at terrifying speed up into the frozen air, contorting like Tom Daley, but with a snowboard attached to both your feet, and knowing that the ground below is, yes, water, but in its less forgiving form.
It is a stroke of great fortune that the monks of Paisley Abbey in Renfrewshire got there half a century ago, or ITV television executives would, without question, and in a flurry of frappuccino foam, have invented the sport of curling, and with the assistance of a cast of gurning Hollyoaks rejects, foisted it upon us as prime-time Saturday night entertainment. Welcome to bowling on ice.
Anyone who was anywhere near a television on the fabled night of 21 February 2002 will need no introduction to the sport. Who can forget where they were as Rhona Martin glided like a ghost into that hail of frenetic brushing, holding the hammer, dislodging the crucial Swiss counting stone, and in the last action of an incredible match, delivered Great Britain’s first winter gold since Torvill and Dean?
If you don’t know what any of that means, well, in short: two teams take it in turns to slide granite lumps down an icy alley towards a target area, and the closest to the middle wins.
The Team GB women have a big chance of a medal again this year, so broadcasters take note. Just as in 2002, the entire team are Scottish, so any repeating 12 years on of Chris Moyles’s unfortunate line – “England have won a gold medal in curling?” – will, in this year of all years, be even more poorly received.
Positioned on their flimsy sled, the man in front reaches out to his sides and takes a firm grip of the six-inch-long handles, one in each hand. Behind him, his partner tucks in tight, wrapping his spandex covered legs firmly around the other’s middle.
As the seconds count down, both thrust forward with great power, which builds upon repetition until the buzzer sounds and whoosh! The grip is released, and the unforgiving descent begins.
There are, of course, no gay people in Sochi, the town’s mayor has confirmed as much to BBC Panorama, but no fewer than 38 men will compete for gold in the double luge, two of them brothers.
Even within the balmy realm of winter sports, luge is the craziest, and by some margin. Ninety miles an hour down a track of ice, feet first on a tiny tray, unable to see where you are going, the knowledge of when to turn existing only in memory. Actors talk of the fear of forgetting their lines. This is altogether different.
Imagine motorbiking down to the shops, blindfolded, at 90mph. Then do it in front of an audience of millions, with another man wrapped round your midriff in a country where promoting homosexuality is illegal. Germany are favourites.
If the pirates of the Caribbean had had a little more imagination, and taller boats, it’s romantic to imagine they might have come up with ski jumping, given it is little more than a turbo-charged version of walking the plank. But but instead they left it to Norwegian lieutenant about 200 years ago.
As a loosely sporting exercise that seems to want to replicate the most frightening method of suicide imaginable, only bungee jumping runs it close.
Hurl yourself down a 90m ramp that rises sharply at the end and then hold yourself motionless and glide through the air like a flying phalanger for as far as you possibly can, making sure to avoid death on landing.
To come home with gold in Sochi, someone will likely have to journey unaided through thin air for upwards of 280m. That’s London’s Shard, on its side, give or take, that someone will have to clear. From the top of the Shard, individual people cannot be made out. It is a wonder they know where to land.
A few little-known facts are that the specially adapted skis competitors use are less than 3m, and the rules have been changed to make sure the likes of Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards can never take part again.
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