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What the world is watching at the Winters

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Ollie Williams | 03:09 UK time, Wednesday, 10 February 2010

The exhibition floor of the Vancouver Convention Center - rebranded the International Broadcast Centre for the duration of the Olympics - has become the United Nations in miniature.

National flags hang outside the offices of dozens of national broadcasters and, inside every room, reporters are tracking the hundreds of gathered Olympic athletes.

The big breaking story in one room will be passed over in the next office along the corridor. So I've knocked on a few of those doors to find out what's firing up the world's broadcasters.

Canadian flag in VancouverVancouver - the Games have arrived in the 'forgotten city'

Canada's own broadcasters take up the entire second floor, with vast studios for both English and French broadcasts.

Vancouver native Don Taylor, 50, will present coverage for Sportsnet. He's been on air here since 1984, but he hasn't been waiting his whole life for his home town to host the Games - because he never thought it would happen.

"Look at where we are on the globe - people used to think we were forgotten about as a city, but now we're catching up," he said.

"There's a great sporting void in Vancouver. This city has lost so much sport in the last 10 years. We had an NBA team and lost it, Indy car racing and lost that... we had a PGA Tour golf event, Triple A baseball (a level below the Major League) and we lost them all."

That is about to be put right on a grand scale, with ice hockey - a sport in which Britain has zero interest at the 2010 Games - taking centre stage for the host nation.

"Canadians are more in tune with the Winter Games than the Summer Olympics, and the ice hockey is huge," said Taylor. "The hype will be out of this world. If Canada win, watch out - I would not want to be a policeman in Vancouver. It's our national passion, it'd be like England winning football's World Cup."

Tickets for the men's ice hockey final are changing hands for many thousands of Canadian dollars but, for Taylor, the 201-strong Canadian team is better embodied by an individual competitor - speed skater Clara Hughes.

"She encompasses what we think we are as Canadians. She's competed at both the Summer and Winter Olympics, first as a cyclist and now as a speed skater. She'll be carrying the flag for Canada and I can't think of a better choice."

Half the world away, the focus switches from individual athletes to entire nations. Sibling rivalry in Scandinavia will peak at the Winter Games, according to their respective broadcasters in Vancouver.

"There is a big rivalry with Sweden - which Norway normally wins," says Norwegian reporter Jan Petter Saltvedt, with a smile.

"In Sweden they like to make fun of us Norwegians. Last year, their annual sports awards gala was dedicated to making fun of Norway - but we get back at them by winning medals."

Norway's Winter Olympic poster boy competes in a sport which receives barely any attention in Britain: cross-country skiing. Petter Northug, who has just turned 24, is a multiple world champion in the sport and heading to his first Games.

"He is the definition of a modern cross-country skier," Saltvedt told me. The others sometimes seem to just appear out of the Norwegian forests for the Games and they're all good guys, but Petter has a big profile in Norway.

"He loves his one-liners - at the end of events he'll turn round after he was won and yell, 'Where were they?' He's always behind in each race until the very end, then he puts a big sprint in."

Which means he's a prime target for the Swedish team - and its fans. On Facebook there is a group where Swedes have pledged to give £10 each to any Swedish athlete who beats Northug. Well over a thousand people have joined.

Petter NorthugNorwegian superstar and Swedish Facebook target Petter Northug leads another race

"We are the little brother, but the Swedes don't know how to smile. They take it too seriously," concluded Saltvedt. "After all, Norwegians will still support the Swedish hockey team. If you're the little brother, you support your older brother, don't you?"

Tobias Alsing, who will be producing Olympic broadcasts for Swedish television, admitted the Norway-bashing at the sports awards was a step too far - but insisted his country can look beyond Scandinavian in-fighting.

"We do try to have a light-hearted approach to the Norwegians. Sometimes we are better than them, like the hockey, but sometimes they compete in events like Nordic Combined, which simply isn't a big sport in Sweden.

"Northug is the guy to beat, but I wouldn't say the focus is on beating the Norwegians. Look at the ice hockey - this is the biggest hockey tournament ever for us, with all the NHL players, the Games being held in Canada, and us being the defending champions."

Biathlon, where competitors must ski and shoot, gets a lively reception on Swedish television, helped by top athletes Helena Jonsson and Bjorn Ferry - the latter being outspoken author of an exceptionally-named blog, "Ferry Tales".

Ferry maintains a passion for sustainable forestry and his partner is arm wrestling world champion Heidi Andersson, which is something to contemplate when he pops up on your screen.

With characters like that and snow everywhere you look, it's no surprise to hear the Norwegians expect up to one third of their population to be watching back home. But what about nations where snow is barely a natural feature, let alone a national pastime?

"The Winter Games are like a travelogue for Australians," said Ken Sutcliffe, presenter for Channel Nine's coverage. "We're not a snowbound country but we have a fascination with speed and danger."

Channel Nine is one of two broadcasters, alongside Foxtel, representing Australia in Vancouver. Foxtel's approach to advertising the Winter Olympics, as per the video below, suggests its audience needs persuading to engage with the Games.

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"If you ask most Australians who the big star of these Games is, nine out of 10 wouldn't have a clue," said Sutcliffe. "But they could tell you about Steven Bradbury."

Bradbury famously won short track speed skating gold in 2002 after his opponents, all of whom were ahead of him, collided with each other at the last corner.

"'Doing a Bradbury' has become part of the Australian language in the same way Eddie the Eagle did in the UK," said Sutcliffe - but like Team GB and Eddie, the Australians are keen to move on. According to Sutcliffe, whose first Winter Olympics were in Calgary in 1988, the Aussies want six medals from Vancouver, three of them gold.

"We've got four or five very good gold medal chances, and I don't even mean good chances in the same way you build up Andy Murray to win Wimbledon every year, and he never does," he told me. "I'd put money on two of them getting gold - Torah Bright in the snowboard half-pipe, and Dale Begg-Smith in the moguls.

"The half-pipe and moguls will be the sport of the Games. It's the fashion, the clothes, the style. Those two sports will be captivating the youth audience like no other."

So how about a sport like curling, then?

"Curling is mesmerisingly weird," said a perplexed Sutcliffe. "It's a sport that can't really stand slow-motion replays. It's like synchronised swimming - Australians watch it and ask why? How? They have a morbid fascination with what makes it a Winter Olympic sport.

"Because the Winter Olympics is about sexy sport, with athletes running around in colourful, skin-tight outfits. On top of that, some are doing 170mph or more. I'm just waiting for mixed doubles luge."


  • Comment number 1.

    Ho badly have the petulant Australians damaged their "great sporting tradition" by trying to throw the poor Irish Bobsled team out of the competition using obscure logic. And by this ruling does this automatically mean that the australians no longer have to qualify for any Olympic event?

  • Comment number 2.

    Have a whinge. The International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation clearly states in its qualification criteria that the top ranked team from Oceania gains selection, and that team was Australia. The fact that they won their appeal is testament to the fact that the selection criteria was not correctly followed. The Irish team just happened to be the lowest ranked team and the Australians were the ones who suggested that an extra place be added instead of the Irish team losing their spot.

    btw, this is nothing compared to what British lawyer Mike Townley tried to do to Angie Darby prior to Beijing. Very low act that was and thankfully it was unsuccessful.

  • Comment number 3.

    "Have a whinge" ..... sheesh .... you're effectively an largish ;) island nation and hence by this ruling does this automatically mean that the australians no longer have to qualify for ANY Olympic event (including the summer olympic team events)?

    The Irish team qualified as per the standards set out by the official sleding organisation ..... the australians didn't, and only objected to it NOW ... how is that "fair play"?

  • Comment number 4.

    The five Olympic rings represent the five continents... and the wording of the Bobsleigh qualification system indicates that an Oceania team should be included... hence why Australia appealed. Whether Australia 'deserve' a spot is irrelevant... the system states they should be in and that's why they're in.

    Anyway now Brazil are appealing so who knows where this is going. Ireland should blame the mess that is the qualification system, not the individual countries who are just trying to get their own athletes in to the event.

  • Comment number 5.

    Whilst Britain doesn't have a team in the ice hockey - its wrong to say there is zero interest....I like mayn others will be following it despite the time difference. Hope the BBC give it some airtime.

    Go the Sharks' Canadian: Heatley - Thornton - Marleau line !

    ..and by the way we have a British female ref in Joy Tottman in Vancouver
    ...a quick google search confirmed that fact

  • Comment number 6.

    Moribund (cracking username, I love both Peter Gabriel and burgers) - I see quite a lot of Joy as I'm a hockey commentator in the UK and often cover games she's reffing. I spoke to her before leaving for Vancouver and I'll be catching up with her here, too.

    So you're right, there IS a British presence and there are some of us from the UK who do care, but not on anything like the scale of the nations taking part and the more traditional winter sports nations.

  • Comment number 7.

    RE: The bobsleigh. Just let Ireland, Australia, and Brazil in. Neither of these three teams are going to cause any problems for the contenders anyway.

    To the author: thank you for not making that terrible mistake and lumbing Finland in Scandinavia as well. Really hate it when people do that. Finnish state TV, YLE (the local BBC) has been replaying the whole 1995 Ice Hockey World Cup win, especially the final against Sweden. I guess as way to pump everyone up for the Olympics. It'll be tough for them to medal, but beating Sweden to a bronze would make a lot of people very happy.

    Most Finns are going to be cheering for one Janne Ahonen anyway. Back out of retirement, and chasing the only thing he has never one in ski jumping, namely an individual gold medal. Also back out of retirement is the inspirational Hannu Manninen in the Nordic combined. Not the best jumper in the world but brutal in the skiing part, often skiing down a deficit of 30+seconds to win by a margin that is nearly as big!

    In fact, while Finland's team is small compared to some others, namely their two neighbours, a lot of them are at the top of their disciplines and showing great form. So these Winter Olympics, even more than ever, are being very eagerly anticipated over here!

  • Comment number 8.

    I can understand that our Nordic (not Scandinavian!) neighbours decided to show the 1995 final, as that was about the last time that Finland beat Sweden in any important game... :-) The fact that the NHL players are there (which is not the case at the World Champs) and the fact that Sweden are the reigning champions (2006, when we beat Finland 3-2 in the final, was the first time ever we won a competition where all the best players in the world competed) makes the hockey a very special sport.

    Sweden took a record 7 gold medals last time in Turin, a feat which will be hard to match. But if Helena Jonsson and reigning mass start champion Anna Carin Olofsson-Zidek can retain their form in the Olympics, we should get a gold or maybe two from the biathlon. Beyond that, there are many possible gold chances but no lock-ups. We have a handful in cross-country sprint, where we won 3 out of 4 gold medals in Turin.

    BTW, the latest word from Norway is that Northug may be pulling out of the sprint to save his energy for other events. If so, that would see a match-up between Sweden's Emil Jönsson and Norway's Ola Vigen Hattestad for the gold.

  • Comment number 9.

    We are excited to welcome the world to our wonderful country!

  • Comment number 10.

    It's a shame that hockey hasn't caught on more in the UK - us Canadians get into soccer / football because it's so similar to hockey in terms of gameplay, albeit without much of the speed or physical play.

    (I do have fond memories of watching the Wild's upset of the Avs in 2003 while on vacation, though... I suppose the fact that the games are on in the middle of the night, as opposed to our Breakfast with the EPL setup, hurts.)

    You'd think that it would work the other way around as well, especially given its massive popularity in continental Europe in soccer-heavy countries like Germany.

  • Comment number 11.

    I also wish Hockey could be a bigger sport in the UK, but a lack of Ice rinks and limited national structure limit the sport :(

    As the coach who has delivered the resurgent British Nordic Ski Team I can’t wait to see Petter Northug in action, even if he does miss the sprint race. I would tip him for a minimum of 2 golds this Olympics but you could see 3?? He makes the sport a hell of a lot more entertaining and is a little brash with it! Some people don’t like him as they perceive him as arrogant, personally he is a hero and just what the sport needs!

    Al Dargie – Lead coach British Nordic Ski Team - until May 2009

  • Comment number 12.

    I am looking forward to seeing the ice hockey in HD . One of the problems with watching ice hockey on TV , is not being able to follow the puck . Hopefully with a big HD telly this will be a problem of the past .


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