Saved by a sausage and other pleasant surprises
Saturday 23 January 1999
On the Saturday after the British pair had finished a disappointing third in the compulsory programme - the first of the three ice dance sections - it fell to a small group of British journalists, of whom I was one, to generate a Sunday newspaper story from a practice day.
Dutifully, we gathered at the Hamar arena to witness the nation's love objects buckling down to work for the following day's crucial competition. Only they didn't, because at their designated hour they weren't on the ice.
As deadlines loomed, the only feasible storyline began to take on a stridently judgmental, chauvinistic tone. It was not hard to imagine the likely headlines - "Torvill and Dean - nowhere to be seen" (Independent on Sunday); "T and D fail to face the music' (The Observer); "A nation betrayed" (Mail on Sunday).
Then someone spotted the disconsolate pair in the canteen, nursing wounded pride and cardboard cups of coffee over a plastic table. Twenty minutes later the case was altered as Dean disarmingly admitted they would not have attempted to return to competition after a 10-year absence in the professional ranks had they known the reception they would receive from the Olympic judges. "I don't think it's us," Torvill said. "It's just professionals. It's just a feeling..." "Like, you shouldn't be here..." added Dean, wringing his hands.
Never mind the practice session. Here was a heart-rending story of two British champions abroad, struggling valiantly in the face of prejudice. Praise the Lord, and pass the sugar...
Such sudden strokes of fortune are even more vital for photographers. Sure, they can help each other out with the odd negative; but someone has to be where the action is in the first place, otherwise nothing.
At the 1990 Commonwealth Games in Auckland, the photographer with whom I was covering the event had been told to get a picture of the Kenyan runners, who were expected to run away with the medals in the middle distance events. They were proving to be damned elusive fellows, giving the lie to the old adage "you can run, but you can't hide". After lugging his gear around all the likely locations, including two practice tracks, my colleague decided to take a breather and contemplate the vista of the host city from the historical vantage point of One Tree Hill.
It is a location which has deep mystical significance in New Zealand. And as my friend wandered up its grassy side, he too underwent a form of religious experience as he was confronted by a group of Kenyan middle distance runners pounding along the winding dirt track which encircled the peak.
Clickety clickety click. Thank you very much.
Early last year at the Winter Olympics in Nagano I went along to the bobsleigh track to see if Georg Hackl could complete an unprecedented hat-trick of victories in the luge. Which, for the benefit of those who may have forgotten, consists of aerodynamic madmen hurtling groin-forwards downhill at 80 miles per hour on little more than a pair of finely balanced fish knives.
Hackl, a modest and modestly built German, had proved bafflingly good at this lunatic endeavour whenever the Olympics came around, and the world of luge - a strange place, admittedly - eagerly awaited his latest challenge from more muscular and obviously athletic competitors.
Needless to say, he rose to the challenge once again, and gave a press conference so genial it was hard to believe he had once become sufficiently shirty with his local newspaper to serve it with a writ preventing him from being described as the "speeding white sausage", a reference to the trademark, rubberised outfit he had worn during his triumphs. Sausages, clearly, were off the menu as far as Herr Hackl's questioning was concerned. Don't mention the sausage.
The gathering broke up as the man of the moment was summoned to the minibus detailed to take him to the evening medal ceremony. But before he departed, Hackl had time to drop into the German team hut for a brief, celebratory beer. He left to riotous applause, clutching in his hand a sandwich. A sausage sandwich. Result, as Mr Micawber would have said, happiness.
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