Spectator sport

Hate the Winter Olympics? Here’s why you’re wrong

24 February 2018

9:00 AM

24 February 2018

9:00 AM

Despite the best efforts of this column (and the BBC), too many Brits regard the Winter Olympics with the same enthusiasm as they would a traction engine rally or a village fête. Well you are so wrong, people. Admittedly you can get fed up with the BBC TV breakfast presenters nattering away about how they are going off after the show to watch the Nordic combined, as if they really believe we believe them. And when you find yourself in the small hours, like me, watching the curling mixed doubles or listening to ice hockey commentary on the radio you are forced to question whether your life has gone seriously wrong somewhere. But hey, they are only on every four years and there’s plenty of reasons to love these Games.

In the studio, Chemmy Alcott, the former British champion skier, has been the star. She has been there, done that and worn the catsuit, and talks about the sport with great wit and authority. She told a wonderful story about meeting her idol, the seedy Italian Alberto Tomba, and he slipped his telephone number into her jacket. Oh no, she thought, don’t spoil it. Always good to see a lazy national stereotype in action. The skiing commentary has been a work of art: ‘There’s a 360 backstroke reverse alley-oop with a 920 variation and forward partial grab incorporating an octopus and 410 degree double kiss on the rails… oh my word, did you see that backside triple cork, humongous air with a 180 switch-up and a flying hand drag on the kink,’ and so on until the screen explodes. I haven’t a clue, not a clue, what Ed Leigh is on about.

Spare a thought for America’s über-broadcaster Katie Couric, who has come in for some heavy social media stick after claiming that the reason the Dutch are so good at skating is because they use their iced canals to travel about in winter. When some humourless tweeters pointed out that the Dutch, like everyone else, use bikes, cars or public transport to get about, Katie was quick to put out a full 100-carat, château-bottled apology.

Pity. Have a look at any Bruegel winter painting and they are full of Dutch peasants skating along the canals, their arms niftily held behind in best speed-skating style. I wish Katie had stuck to her guns, and thrown in a couple of remarks about clogs, cannabis cafés and the red light district.

One person who should spend a bit more time on iced-up canals is Britain’s very own triple-gold-hope speed skater Elise Christie, who has had a tricky old week. Three events in Pyeongchang and three times Christie has crashed or been disqualified. It was the same four years ago in Sochi. Maybe the big events are not for you, Elise. Olympic skating receives millions in funding, unlike basketball, which is played by millions but gets nothing. Time for a rethink perhaps.

You may have missed the exploits of a laconic young man from Colorado called Red Gerard, who at the age of 17 picked up the snowboard slopestyle gold with a breathtaking run that took him from last to first. When it became clear he had won, he exclaimed ‘Holy fuck’ live on air, like any self-respecting 17-year-old. That morning he had slept through his alarm after staying up binge–watching Brooklyn Nine-Nine on Netflix. His mate woke him up, lent him a coat and they shot off to the slopes. That strikes me as just about the most snowboardy thing ever.

As for the women’s curling, the lovely Eve Muirhead has been pressing on, and good for her, though quite how closely she is related to the Duchess of Cambridge I think we should be told.

Lastly: bless Pep Guardiola. As if he couldn’t get more godlike, after Wigan we now know he steams in when he needs to steam in. And hundreds of managers never do that.

Roger Alton celebrates the Winter Olympics on The Spectator Podcast.

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