Thursday, 27 February 2014

Ski Sunday

"She could not fathom the hexagonal miracle of snowflakes formed from clouds, crystallized fern and feather that tumble down to light on a coat sleeve, white stars melting even as they strike. How did such force and beauty come to be in something so small and fleeting and unknowable?"
(Eowyn Ivey, The Snow Child)

My evenings of the past two weeks have been occupied with the Winter Olympics highlights programme. I did try a couple of times during the day to convince my daughter that watching somebody other than Pingu on a set of skis could be entertaining, but she was having none of it. Especially as we have had no snow this winter in Yorkshire, which she seems to think is entirely my fault. I dread the day that my daughter realises that instead of everything, in fact I control absolutely nothing in the world. And least of all her.

The good thing about the Winter Olympics is that its sporting programmes cannot be quite as British focused, as we’ve always been a bit shit at skiing. And we haven’t had a decent figure skater for over 30 years. In recent times, some new sports have crept into the schedules which seem to appeal to the British talent for sitting down, being slow, or verging on vandalism. So this year we won medals in skeleton, curling and slopestyle. We have become successful at hurtling down an ice tunnel on a tray (skeleton and luge) probably because it’s the only winter sport regularly on offer to most of us when snow does come. With most of our towns lacking mountains or – outside of Christmas - ice rinks, it’s probably not worth our investment in a fancy sledge for a couple of snowfalls a year, but a tea tray will do the job nicely, thank you. As for curling, well, we’ve always liked our garden bowls in our parks on lazy Sunday afternoons, but this is better because you get to wear slippy shoes and bring your own broom. And slopestyle has evolved directly from people sliding down banisters on their skateboards. Which, let’s face it, they shouldn’t actually ever be doing.
My daughter attempts luge

Anyway, there’s still not enough British winter athletes out there to fill a highlights programme every single night, so there was usually fairly decent cross-discipline coverage. So much of winter sport is really about gymnastics, which in my opinion makes any event pretty special to watch. At the helm of course was Clare Balding, doing her usual stern, sincere and enthusiastic stuff which possibly makes her appear more knowledgeable than she actually is. There was an appalling attempt at comedy with a nightly selection of people-falling-over-funnies with excruciatingly unwitty commentary. There was an obsession with a shopping trolley that the BBC had hired for 10 roubles a day to transport computer and camera equipment around their makeshift studio in a restaurant in Sochi. Robin Cousins, one of those figure skaters from 30 years ago, would occasionally pop in. No sign of Torvill and Dean, though there have been plenty of other programmes on about them recently, celebrating three decades of Bolero. Which does, to be fair, still look as amazing now as it did then. It turns out that those perfect six scores really could not have been bettered. (My grandparents took me, aged 12, to see Torvill and Dean at Wembley the year they turned professional. I would rate that as possibly the highlight of my entire childhood.)

And then, talking about being shit at skiing, there was Graham Bell, who (with his brother Martin) was our only hope on the slopes when my brother and I used to watch Ski Sunday when we were little. I hadn’t seen him since then. In fact, I had never properly seen him, since thanks to helmets and goggles, you never have any idea what skiers actually look like. That must certainly help you walk down the high street unmolested if you achieve celebrity status. So who knew before what piercing blue eyes Graham Bell possessed? He appears to be a bit of a daredevil even now, and was shown happily skiing down the Olympic courses without sticks, because he was carrying a giant TV camera over his shoulder. Hm, I hope his wife can sleep at night. But he was also a great commentator and genuinely did know his stuff, talking about each sport with a rare and intelligent eloquence. Well, maybe he wasn’t entirely sure of the judge’s scoring system in all the snowboarding events, but who was? He still did better than all the other snowboarding commentators, whose vocabulary consisted only of “Stonking”, “stoked” and “WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!” I don’t think I am ever going to have proper time for the faux cool of snowboarding.

I have only been skiing once, an afternoon of cross-country skiing one winter in Montana. We were staying in a cosy cabin by a frozen lake in the wilderness. Cosy, that is, apart from the only toilet being a bench above a deep, stinking pit in an outhouse twenty metres away. Brrrr! The snow around the cabin was so deep the only way to traverse it was on snowshoes or skis. And snow shoes are, frankly, ridiculous. Especially the pair I was loaned, which were about 40 years old and bright orange. So skiing it was. I really enjoyed it, even if I was only really doing circuits of the lake, and the only way I could get myself to stop was to lie down sideways. As for downhill, everything I know has been gleaned from a skiing lesson on an episode of Peppa Pig (Snowy Mountain).
Me on skis in the winter of 1992, the year of the Albertville Olympics, coincidentally
My grandmother recently told me that she only went downhill skiing for the first time when she was 40, so you’d like to think it’s never too late. But it rather is for me, I suspect. My grandmother, now aged 93, probably has better knees now than I ever have. I wrecked one when I was 13 and the other a couple of years ago.  But I do love snow, and I would jump at the chance to have a proper Alpine winter holiday, as long as the only winter sports I had to do when I got there would be snowman building, sledging down a gentle slope, Christmas shopping and gl├╝hwein drinking in front of a roaring log fire.

Because the injuries sustained during skiing are really quite phenomenal. It’s bloody dangerous. Tragedies like Michael Schumacher and Natasha Richardson aside, it seems to be a world of broken bones and lacerated tendons, concussion and cracked ribs. Every sportsperson is prone to injury which can set their training behind months and months. But the work taken to overcome skiing injuries must be phenomenal. Chemmy Alcott, Britain’s only medal (no) hope in downhill skiing in the Olympics, has broken her leg no less than three times in the past year alone. To carry on from such an extensive series of wounds takes a certain level of crazy. Or maybe she’s is just too posh, with a name like that (though part of me is thinking car leather), to do anything else.

I watched some of Channel 4’s latest ludicrous celebrity humiliation show, The Jump, and it was so bad that the only thing that made me turn it on by the end of the week (apart from the chance of seeing Graham Bell’s eyes again, him being one of “the experts” on this programme too) was to see who had been injured next and how. Because “the scariest elimination task on TV” itself, participating in a ski jump, was - when it came to it - pretty pathetic.  They just kind of plopped off the end of a very short run, the longest jump of a “celebrity” ski jumper registering around 15 metres. They should have made Anthea Turner and the like go down a proper Olympic ski jump. Now, they ARE scary. I have stood on top of two (in summer, I hasten to add) - one in Calgary and one in Zakopane. From the top, the vertigo is extraordinary. And if you reach the bottom of them, you’re expected to fly through the air a distance in triple figures.

The other “expert” on The Jump was of course Eddie Edwards. The only British ski jumper. Ever. Who hadn’t jumped for 18 years. I don’t think this had occurred to anyone at Channel 4. So suddenly poor Eddie had to take up his sport again, all in the name of television. (I was in Calgary, incidentally, five years after Eddie The Eagle’s Olympics there. They still remembered him fondly.)

So farewell to Sochi. Russia has built an Olympic winter sports village that cost more than all the other Winter Olympics put together, in a place where it is so mild that they will never be able to hold winter sports there again, at least not without importing snow from Siberia. We might as well hold the Winter Olympics in Yorkshire. Now there’s a thought.

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