Winter Olympics 2014: I don’t know what they’re doing, but Sochi’s winter sports are compelling

The commentary sounded as if you and a few drunk mates decided to have a go


I am usually drawn to watching sports which I understand, at least in principle. My backhand may be pitiful compared with Andy Murray’s, and my fastest swimming is around 100 times slower than that of Ellie Simmonds, but I understand what’s involved in their sports, even if I’m incapable of it. Ski-jumping and the luge, however, are a mystery to me.

It will come as no surprise to regular readers that I am not usually a fan of winter sport, even when it doesn’t take place in a country whose attitude to gay rights is bracingly vile.

I have no alpine skills: it’s difficult to ski when you have a high centre of gravity, and only the largeness of your feet stops you from tipping up on pavements, let alone mountains. Skis, to those of my natural clumsiness, are an extended clown shoe.

I have skied – once – on a school trip, which bafflingly took place in Bulgaria, the year before the Berlin Wall came down. Suffice it to say that my notion of apres-ski is rather less luxurious than it looked in all those James Bond films.

Not so much hot chocolate and cosy chalets. Quite a lot more making a miniature flame-thrower out of deodorant and a cigarette lighter to blitz the cockroaches out of the bathroom.

And yet, the Winter Olympics hold me in their icy grasp. I turned on the television yesterday morning to see the women’s snowboarding, at which Jenny Jones won bronze. Britain’s first ever medal on snow, we kept being told, as if to remind Torvill and Dean not to be smug.

Ice-skating is all well and good, obviously, but it’s not hurling yourself 40 feet into the air with your feet taped to a surfboard, while wearing a winter coat.

The BBC has sensibly kept its safe pairs of hands from the 2012 Olympics coverage – Hazel Irvine, Matthew Pinsent and Clare Balding. But they have also hired an array of former and current winter athletes to help out.

This, obviously, means that their insight into sports many of us have never tried is really helpful. Or at least it would be, if they could all stop screaming and crying for long enough to share it.

The women’s slopestyle was genuinely brilliant: partly because every snowboarder is missing the genetic component the rest of us have, which tells us not to throw ourselves down a mountain which someone has covered in metal bars and enormous ice-jumps. One girl fell so badly it looked like she’d knocked herself out for a few moments, yet she still got back on her feet and slalomed to the end of the course.

But mainly it was great because the commentary sounded exactly like it would if you and a couple of mates got drunk and decided to have a go. Aimee Fuller, a British snowboarder who had missed out on a place in the final, was shrieking so loudly when I tuned in yesterday that I briefly thought the telly had been possessed, like in Poltergeist. Lucky it was daylight, or bats would have flown off-course.

But she clearly knew what she was talking about, mainly because she is a professional snowboarder. Also, she was listing strings of numbers, which I’m pretty sure described the jumps we were watching. A 720 is probably a 720-degree spin, right? All the way round, twice? Like I said, I’m new to all this, but she sounded convincing to me.

Her fellow commentators were equally knowledgeable and emotional. Once Jones had received her score, they were anxious to see if she would remain in medal contention.

There was what sounded suspiciously like a faint cheer when other snowboarders muffed their landings. You could practically hear the BBC switchboard humming with complaints about impartiality and squealing.

And it is, undeniably, unprofessional. When asked by Hazel Irvine what Jones’ performance meant to the future of snowboarding in Britain, one commentator broke down in tears and couldn’t answer. But if you hate excessive displays of emotion, sport probably isn’t for you anyway. And if I get to choose between uncontrollable Olympic weeping and endless “I’ll tell you what they should have done…” football punditry, I choose the overblown emotion every time.

Besides, seeing Matthew Pinsent surprise Jenny Jones with her parents (who had snuck over to Sochi in secret, because their daughter gets nervous if she knows they’re there) would have defrosted the coldest heart. Once her mum had told her she had never disappointed them, I was in a worse state than the commentators.

So, now we’ve got a world-beating snowboarder, isn’t it time we bid for a winter Olympics? We liked having the Olympics in 2012 – we could do it again. Skiing down Ben Nevis? Ice dancing outside Somerset House? Global attention on Milton Keynes Snow Dome? 2022, here we come.

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