The Winter Olympics is ever so fancy these days isn’t it?
Every time I turn on the TV, there is some snowboarder skimming along a metal pole or a skier doing triple backward loops. As for the speed skaters, they are as likely to be crashing dramatically into rink-side barriers as they are to be actually finishing their races.
It wasn’t always like this. For children growing up in Britain thirty or forty years ago, the Winter Olympics was mainly exciting because it meant you got to play vicariously in the snow. Soft southerners might see a decent fall twice a decade – and when that happened all usual sports would be called off.
Yet there on the telly was proof that in other parts of the world there was enough of the white stuff to actually provide the basis for an entire sporting festival.
The absence of snow in Britain – and of much funding for would-be Winter Olympians – meant that success for home grown talent was, if ever it came, miraculous. We were good at ice-skating of course, mainly because you could do it indoors.
Otherwise, there were the Bell brothers and, well, that was about it. Eddie ‘the Eagle’ Edwards became a household name by being dreadful at ski-jumping and looking like an accountant.
As for the events, they were straightforward affairs. Skiing was either downhill in a fairly straight line or with a bit of zig-zagging. The ski-jumpers simply tried to go a long way. Nobody threw in somersaults unless things had gone very badly wrong.
Evidently such classical pursuits are not enough for modern tastes. In 1988 there was a sign of things to come when short track speed skating made its debut as a demonstration sport. In Wilf O’Reilly, Team GB even had a star.
A decade later, snowboarding appeared too; to the chagrin of traditionalists, and to the delight of cool teenagers, who had to explain to their parents that a half-pipe wasn’t something old men smoked in the 18th century.
The skeleton bob came along next, because a normal bobsleigh obviously isn’t dangerous enough. Give it another few years and there will probably be an event which involves people sliding down near-vertical slopes on their bare bottoms before jumping through a fiery hoop.
Amidst all the razzmatazz, thank goodness then for curling. This most staid of sports remains as proof that it is possible to create drama in the most unglamorous of settings, without need for tricks, injuries or fireworks. The only sporting endeavour that requires more cleaning than athleticism, it is to the Olympics what John Major was to politics – apparently dull but surprisingly interesting if you watch closely enough.
Even here however, it seems that just getting on with the sport isn’t enough, with the Russian curler Alexander Krushelnitsky having tested positive for the banned drug meldonium and likely to be stripped of the medal he won last week.
Krushelnitsky has told officials he thinks his drink was spiked some time before the Games began. But maybe the truth is that he looked over at the snowboarders – boxer shorts hitched higher than their trousers, flipping for fun in their half-pipes, oozing cool – and just felt a little dull by comparison.
“Hey Alex, are you a snowboarder too? No? Oh, so what do you do?”
“I push a big stone slowly along an ice-rink. And sometimes I do some brushing.”
“OK. Well, nice meeting you. Goodbye.”
Really though it’s the curlers we should be rooting for. Like county cricketers, crown green bowlers and non-league footballers, they are a reminder of a more grounded world in which dullness sharpens drama, rather than standing at odds with it.
In turbulent times, amid Brexit division, Trumpian madness, fake news and celeb culture, it is understandable that sport should try to keep up. But speed, tricks, thrills and spills can mask a peculiar absence of real theatre – spectacle over substance.
Then again, maybe I’m just a half-pipe half empty kind of guy.
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