Winter Olympics Trash-talk

Just to give you some idea of what will follow, my working title was “The Wanker Olympics”. So if you find yourself at the end of this piece, wondering why you have wasted up to 5 minutes of your life on this axe grind, you only have yourself to blame.

Jagged peaks, powerful storms followed by searing sunlight, crisp snow clinging to nature’s rises and falls and piercing, lung-filling icy air, rural Derbyshire really is something in an increasingly rare deep winter. More often the residents of that great county are better off waiting for the quadrennial Winter Olympic festivities to grace their small screens, and see all of the above as a backdrop to some overly serious Austrian travelling at speed with two planks attached to his feet.

Of course, one can simply go to their nearest continent-dividing mountain range and ski themselves. Most people I know, being simultaneously rich enough and poor enough to have voted for Corbyn in the last election, see at least one ski trip per year as a basic human right. But they are not totally bad people, they occasionally broke off their mountain monologues to look at me with sympathy, before complaining to an impoverished PhD student that it’s just so expensive to spend 2 weeks in the Alps with a whole family these days.

For the wealthier members of society, the traditional winter sports are drinking whiskey at sun-up before setting off on the horses to kill small animals using shotguns or dogs. Actual skiing, rather than mountain-top drinking, is for the poor or the vegetarian. Only the poorer members of society have taken for themselves the greatest winter sport- watching the darts in the pub.

Unfortunately Southern Oatcake has already covered darts and does not yet have a gun license, so for now we must stick to the middle class’s second favourite white powder: snow. Or at least fake snow from a snow machine, economically sprayed over a cold, barren hill and also on an abandoned water slide in front of a steel mill- Beijing’s technological solution to boosting wintery national pride with an Olympics despite not having the weather to do so.

But it is this scene of man-made snow against an empty brown canvas that really jars when it is peppered with Lycra’d up Norwegians putting a lifetime of physical conditioning in to some “cross country” skiing. This forces us to consider not only whether they are wasting their lives by becoming so good at such an obscure activity, but whether we are all wasting all of our lives by focussing our energies and consuming the Earth’s finite resources in pursuit of an arbitrary, socially constructed notion of success.

Let’s reverse that thought train half way back down the mind track and consider the question: what is sport?

Very broadly sport involves a competition based on athletic prowess and skill, and often it takes the form of a game in which tactics can also be used to overcome the opponent. Both of these combine in team sports, which have the additional benefit of a spirit of collective endeavour, perhaps explaining why in 194 countries football is all-conquering, while in the 195th All-American nation they do another type of football where one guy throws a ball while everyone else on the pitch fights. And if they fight wrong several men dressed as burglars throw a flag on to the pitch and they have to start again.

But not every athlete is a footballer, and their speed, strength, agility, stamina or excellence at beating up their fellow humans can be put to the test in a race or a head-to-head competition. And the key part of a race or a head-to-head for the viewer, who is ultimately funding this whole enterprise, is that the participants compete at the same time. What would boxing be if the fighters queued up to test their punching power on a machine? What of a 100m race with a staggered start, where we see only individual focus instead of athletes striving with all their might to catch the one just ahead?

The answer to these (initially rhetorical) questions is the Winter Olympics, where almost every event is a time trial. With every variant of downhill skiing we watch masked people descend a mountain one after the other and at the end one person was 0.1 s faster for reasons we will never understand. But at least downhill skiing is sort of a life skill. Not in the same way as running, swimming or lifting heavy things, but I am sure one could contrive a situation where a very fast bear is chasing you down a snowy hill, but fortunately you are wearing skis and someone has marked out a safe yet winding path with flags that avoids… all the other bears?

This is still more plausible than bobsled, skeleton or luge (going down a carved smooth ice track on a tray feet first, or French style, compared to the much more sensible head first approach of the Anglophone world). I’m not saying that every Summer Olympic sport make sense. Looking at you here Dressage. But training a horse is a more plausible life event than a downhill ice track with banked corners forming on a cold night outside the carbon fibre workshop of you and your three buddies. And on the point of the absurd. Curling.

Time trialling, being generously described as a competition for the purists, is now deemed to be “too boring for the short attention span generation”. This besmirches our young people. Not so long ago the Winter Olympics only had to compete with 3 other TV channels and the bookcase. Now it has to up its game to grab attention.

It has done this by getting teenagers on skis or snowboards to pull some crazy tricks and gets points for how crazy and well-executed they are. Admittedly on a scoring system that the viewer cannot learn about because the commentators just sit there and shout “back 1440!”. Like, that score is some mad Tony Hawks combo multiplier shit, man, or so I thought before I realised I have been neglecting my 180 times table of late and it’s in degrees. Guys. Pi radians! It’s very unlikely you will have to count past 6. Or for my increasingly radical Tauist readership (tau is twice pi and is way better, and if you don’t get why you don’t deserve it) you will never need to go past 3. Keeping it simple for the yoot.

Still, if you want to enjoy your two weeks of mountain time trialling, don’t let me stop you. I also don’t have time to. This week’s final of the Cazoo World Premier League Darts is about to start on ESPN 29: Are You Sure You Meant This One?

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