Sport on TV: Winter Olympics: Desperate Dougie and the abominable ice-people

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The Independent Online
THERE were plenty of shocks during the first week in Nagano, many of which concerned Ray Stubbs' taste in sweaters, but there was nothing to match the news which emerged from the drug-testing laboratories on Wednesday morning. The world of snowboarding was stunned. Both the silver and bronze medallists in the men's giant slalom had apparently tested negative for marijuana. Just when it was being enthusiastically adopted by hip modern youth, this was a blow to the credibility of the sport - sorry, lifestyle - of snowboarding from which it may never recover.

Not that you would have known it from the level of comment in the Olympic Grandstand (BBC) studio, situated somewhere in the Orient, or possibly a few miles west of Brisbane Road, at Television Centre. Ray, Sue Barker and the rest had more important things on their mind - curling, for instance. In fact, they could talk about little else, since the chance of a British - or rather Scottish - gold medal on the curling rink was slim to non- existent, and thus a great deal fatter than it was anywhere else in Japan.

Now, this is a world in which people play beach volleyball and even, in Nagano itself, are ready to indulge in a spot of moguls, which is rather like sitting by a residential rat- run and watching the cars negotiate the speed bumps. Despite this strong competition, though, curling has impressive claims to be the most ludicrous sport going. Those long winter nights in the Arctic circle clearly do strange things to a person's mind, such as persuading them that playing bowls on ice with lumps of granite, and employing two friends with brooms to scrub frantically as the stone goes on its slow, predictable and not very interesting way, is a fulfilling thing to do.

There were, it is true, quite a few people in the audience, but it seems likely that most of them were talent scouts from some of Europe's biggest contract cleaning firms. Up in the commentary box, meanwhile, the ever- eager Dougie Donnelly and his expert sidekick, Richard Harding, had been assigned the difficult task of selling curling to a sceptical public.

The very fact that it was deemed necessary to have two commentators was a bit of a giveaway. The theory, obviously, was similar to that employed at American nuclear bunkers, where there are two guards, both armed with pistols and orders to use them if the other guy goes barmy. In the case of curling, they send a pair of observers in case one falls asleep.

Donnelly's opening gambit was that curling is not, in fact, bowls on ice, but chess on ice. To which anyone who was still awake will have replied, "No it's not. It's bowls on ice. Definitely." Harding, on the other hand, was getting technical. "The essence of the strategy in its simplest terms," he advised sagely, "is that when you are winning the game you want to play it in the house, and when you are losing you will try to play the game in front of the house. When you have last stone then you want to play towards the wings and keep the four-foot circle free, when you don't have last stone you want to block up the middle."

Quite. And once we had grasped the basics, it was on to the finer points. "At the risk of offending curling aficionados [God forbid]," Donnelly revealed, "sweeping doesn't make the stone go faster, but it does mean that it doesn't slow down so quickly." Dougie, it seems, had been spending rather more time with the snowboarders than is good for him.

And so, for that matter, had whoever designed the set over which the presenters attempted to drape themselves. It appeared to have been dreamt up by someone whose only previous contact with Japan was via an unhealthy passion for Godzilla flicks, which had left them convinced that everything in the Land of the Rising Sun is plastic and unconvincing.It was at least an appropriate backdrop for Edward "Don't Call Him The Eagle, It Only Encourages Him" Edwards, who was wheeled out to offer an informed opinion on the ski-jumping.

This, of course, is like seating a Hackney Marshes clogger between Des and Alan to comment on the World Cup final, but it did allow us an entertaining insight into the twilight zone of undeserved celebrity that is Eddie's existence. He would, he insisted, have been delighted to jump in Japan, although his initial estimate of a "top 10" finish contracted fairly rapidly into "not last". Indeed, he reckoned he would have been there, had it not been for the fact that all 14 of the qualifying competitions he had been hoping to enter had been cancelled. Funny that.

Cancellation, as it happens, was something of a theme all week, as numerous attempts to stage the men's downhill floundered beneath the weight of snow. This was good news for the taxi driver ferrying Martin Bell, the only British skier anyone has heard of, to Shepherds Bush every night, and also, to judge by the grins on their faces, for the rest of the presenters. Why? Because in its place, they could bring us more curling.

It was enough to make you take up snowboarding. Or at any rate, indulge in a bit of apres-board.