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Winter Olympics - where anything can go wrong

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Eleanor Oldroyd Eleanor Oldroyd | 13:08 UK time, Friday, 13 November 2009

As a confirmed sporting failure of many years' standing, I spend most of my working life in awe of the people I get to meet and watch in action.

But are there any more impressive sports men and women than those who take part in the Winter Olympics? With less than 100 days to go until Vancouver 2010, I took an opportunity to meet a few of them for Thursday evening's Winter Olympics Special on 5 live.

Not only are they achieving massive feats of athletic achievement, but they're doing it on surfaces which are, let's face it, a bit slippy.

It's all very well trying to be faster, higher and stronger when the ground is secure beneath your feet, but what about when it's covered in snow or ice?

Bradbury was a shock Olympic champion

Some years ago, on a skiing holiday, my boyfriend of the time stood over me as I slumped, whimpering, on a not very challenging slope, and declared in exasperation, "I can't understand how you can earn your living from sport, and still be so rubbish at it!"

It was not my finest moment. But I'm not just an embarrassment on a ski slope. Get me on skates and I make Bambi on ice look like Katarina Witt.

And yet I was a passionate fan and part time commentator on the Telford Tigers ice hockey team while working at BBC Radio Shropshire in the late '80s (I just never once set foot on the Telford ice rink, for fear that someone might be watching), and I spent a happy few months in 1994 following Torvill and Dean as they attempted to regain their Olympic ice dance title in Lillehammer.

They were simply gorgeous to watch (we can have the debate about whether they were robbed of the gold medal another time), and it's why I find watching Dancing on Ice a less satisfactory experience, in a sporting sense, than watching Strictly Come Dancing.

In the latter, there's a reasonable chance that an amateur celebrity, with lots of training and dedication, can be turned into a dancer of almost professional standard. But for them, the floor tends to stay in roughly the same place, which is not the case in the skating show.

As Giles Smith of The Times so brilliantly wrote about ex-East Ender Todd Carty last year, if the programme had been called "Standing on Ice", he would still have found himself struggling to qualify.

It brings home all too clearly the incredible skills involved in becoming a top Winter Olympian.

But maybe it's that possibility that something might go horribly wrong at any time which makes the Games so compelling.

One of the most memorable moments of Torino in 2006 was the final of the women's snowboard cross.

It's an event which made its debut in Italy last time out, in which four snowboarders launch out of the starting gates at the top of a slope, and race each other down a twisting course.

Collisions are not uncommon, but four years ago, American Lindsey Jacobellis was so far clear of her rivals, that with the finishing line in sight, she attempted a little show-boating trick - and fell over, to be overtaken by Switzerland's Tanya Frieden. The BBC commentary from Ed Leigh has become a YouTube classic.

And while you're there, remind yourself of the glory which was the men's 1,000 metre short track speedskating final in Salt Lake City, 2002.

Steven Bradbury won Australia's first ever Winter Olympic gold when the four guys in front of him all crashed into each other on the final turn, and left him to cross the line as the winner - the most bemused Olympic champion in history?

I can guarantee that you'll enjoy the full comedy of that great moment even more with the help of legendary Aussie commentators Roy and HG if you go on YouTube.

In Lillehammer in 1994, misfortune befell Britain's Wilf O'Reilly in both the 500 and 1,000 metres - he'd won demonstration events in Calgary in 1988, but a damaged blade on his skate denied him the chance to take gold in the real thing.

When we went to interview him afterwards, he just shrugged his shoulders in resignation, and said, "Well ... that's short-track!"

In our house ever since, it's become a standard response to any kind of random domestic mishap that should befall us. Just hung out the washing and it pours with rain? Burnt the toast and there's no bread left? Accidentally dropped a bag of flour all over the kitchen floor?

Hey - that's short-track.

I'd like to think that the moments we'll all relish in Vancouver will be the perfect examples of sport at its best - the dream downhill run, the thrilling ice hockey match, the transcendent figure skating routine. But don't feel guilty for glorying in the things that go wrong, too.

After all, where would sports fans be without a bit of Schadenfreude?


  • Comment number 1.

    Slighty off the subject I know but I believe all medallists in a previous demonstration event should be given full medal status and with it a place in Olympic History, after all these athletes competed at an Olympic Games and finished in the top three but their acheivements are not acknowledged in the Olympic record books. Take Wilf O'Reilly Double Olympic Speed Skating Champion from Great Britain for example would have been the most successful Winter Olympian from Great Britain had he competed in a full Olympic sport and certainly did not get the recognition he deserved, a call to the IOC to give Wilf and other athletes like him (1984 Olympic Tennis Champions for example) a proper medal from those games and a place in Olympic History which they truly deserve.

  • Comment number 2.

    Hi Ellie,

    I love watching the Winter Olympics, it's a great chance to watch sports that you wouldn't normally see otherwise. As someone who would be trepidated by a spot of ice skating, I feel slightly better when someone else gets it wrong, whilst also appreciating the enormous skill it must take to do some of these sports.

    The sport I have the ultimate respect for is the luge, closely followed by the bobsled. In the luge the athletes are totally exposed as they have minimal protection, and the combined speed and control they can maintain is mindblowing. Of course the downhill in skiing is perhaps the Winter Olympics equivalent of the 100m sprint in the summer games, and yet again the level of risk involved increases the chance of a mistake happening, yet mistakes are very rare from what limited viewing I have seen of it.

    All we need now is another British success like the Curling which I remember watching near midnight, and Shelley Rudman in the luge four years later.

    It's a timely moment to discuss the Winter Olympics, especially as it seems it could be under risk of not being in the crown jewels list of protected televised events on terrestrial. It would be a great shame if future Winter Olympics weren't available to be seen by as many as possible, I think it should be cherished in the same way as the Summer games, it is still called the 'Olympics' after all.

  • Comment number 3.

    I tend to focus on the ice hockey during the winter olympics preferring team sports but always find myself distracted/intrigued/fascinated by other events, curling, luge, and most memorably figure skating.

    A sport at its peak can entrance anyone. I don't like figure skating normally but the one time it did hook me in was the 1998 Nagano victory by Ilia Kulik. To me it is one the best example of sporting excellence. Leading after the Short program, Kulik skated a free skate of hyperbole after hyperbole as expressed by the commentators. Having little knowledge of skating I thought it was the usual overstatement that too many commentators are guilty of. I then learnt how right they were and how privileged I was too watch Kulik. As the program went on Kulik's competitors one after another under pressure to compete with his display tried to match his exploits and failed, again and again. You can only appreciate the best when you have seen the dross and whilst his competitors weren't that bad Kulik was the best and he showed it.

  • Comment number 4.

    Eleanor you have failed to mention anything about probably the hardest and most difficult sport in both winter or summer Olympics. What about the biathlon!! You will have a Norwegian man Ole Einar Bjørndalen who already has 5 gold medals going for more. If you look at his record you will see all his achievements and will be amazed at how long he has stayed at the top of his profession.


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