January 31 2010
The Winter Olympics, one of the biggest sporting events of 2010, take centre stage in Vancouver from February 12, and the ranks of winter-sports devotees and casual spectators will be joined by plenty of hawk-eyed punters seeking to make a profit from the daredevil action on ice and snow.
Alongside the demonstrations of courage, flair and skill, the Winter Olympics have, on occasion, been riven by spectacular levels of feuding and, on others, provided moments of comedy bordering on farce. The best example of the former was the extraordinary saga of the Americans Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding, bitter rivals for the women’s figure-skating medals in 1994. Kerrigan, graceful and self-possessed, was favourite for the gold. But then she was attacked by a man wielding a metal baton who injured her knee so badly that it was feared she would miss the games in Lillehammer, Norway, altogether. Sensationally, a subsequent FBI enquiry revealed that her assailant had been hired by Harding’s former husband and her bodyguard.
Although under suspicion herself, Harding was still allowed to compete in the games where Kerrigan, having made a dramatic recovery, was one of her opponents. The clash was portrayed as the sporting equivalent of good versus evil, resulting in general satisfaction when Kerrigan took the silver medal and Harding, who had assumed the mantle of the wicked witch, finished down the field.
In complete contrast, the unintentional star of the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary was Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards, a bespectacled British ski-jumper – if that’s not too flattering a description – who came last by a very long way in both the 70m and 90m jumps. The Eagle didn’t so much soar into the air as drop like a stone, and his well-intentioned efforts were so comically inept that he briefly enjoyed cult status in the UK and beyond.
He didn’t come close, though, to the genuine admiration won by the Jamaican bobsleigh team. They were a laughing stock when they came last in their first Olympics, in Calgary in 1988, but returned to take 14th place in Lillehammer in 1994 – ahead of both the American first and second teams. They were even the subject of the 1993 Disney movie Cool Runnings, which starred John Candy as their fictional coach Irving Blitzer.
But whatever the distractions provided by events such as bobsleigh, skating, and ice hockey, the main attraction at every Winter Olympiad is the Alpine skiing, which takes place this year on the famed slopes of Whistler Mountain. And at 11.45am local time on February 13 all eyes will be on the select group of competitors lining up for the men’s downhill, which is the blue riband event of the Winter Games and akin to the 100m sprint on the track.
Downhill racing is all about speed, speed and more speed, and the qualifiers will attempt to hurtle down the perilous slopes in around 1 minute and 45 seconds. Unsurprisingly, the greatest Olympic skiers have all been charismatic figures, and none more so than the dashing Frenchman Jean-Claude Killy, who pulled off an almost unprecedented hat-trick when he won all three Alpine skiing golds – the Downhill, the Slalom and the Giant Slalom – at the Grenoble Olympics in 1968. In an age when amateurism was still officially the Olympic creed, Killy was a professional in all but name, and with his Gallic good looks and enviable line in fast cars and glamorous girlfriends he captured the spirit of the age.
The sexiest new sport on the Winter Olympic agenda is snowboarding, which resulted in an American first and second place in both the men’s and women’s halfpipe – a kind of snowbound version of the U-shaped bowl used in skateboarding – in Torino four years ago. But in the elite sphere of Alpine skiing the Europeans have traditionally dominated and will once again be determined to put the upstart North Americans in their place. The US veteran Bode Miller might just squeeze into the frame but I’m backing the talented young Swiss skier Carlo Janka, who won over the Birds of Prey course in Colorado in December, to be the fastest man down Whistler Mountain at 5-1 with Ladbrokes.