Monday 20 January 2020

Kevin Myers: There's nothing remotely Olympian about hurtling head-first down a track at 90mph on a tea-tray

Kevin Myers

You might be aware that something called the 'Winter Olympics' is on at the moment. It consists of human activities you have never heard of, now being called 'sports', that are not merely elevated into an international competition, but are awarded with real Olympic gold medals.

This makes them the moral and sporting 'equals' of the gold medals that the authentically great Ronnie Delany or Jesse Owens once got.

Now, I am only aware of the existence of these games because a British athlete called Amy Williams has just won a gold in an event called the skeleton. Cue hysteria in Britain for a sport which until last week did not register in the popular imagination. Yet her 'victory' was only made possible by the design of her aerodynamic helmet.

The skeleton, you see, is a form of super-toboggan, in which the passenger goes head-first (in the manner preferred by obstetricians). In the case of Amy Williams, she reached 89.04mph about an inch away from ice like frozen steel, so I'm not knocking her courage, merely her sanity and the appropriateness of giving her a gold medal for what depends on the technological wizardry of her helmet-designers.

This is how the 'Sunday Telegraph' reported the lead-up to Williams' gold-medal victory: "However, the bobsled-skeleton programme has been ... targeted because of its medal potential and its emphasis on technology. Someone with the chequebook recognised that this sport was rich for the pickings if there was a solid scientific backing of sled-design, clothing-design and of course helmet-design."

The popular image of this kind of sport is of 'our gallant gal' piloting a tea-tray at what must seem like the speed of sound. But, that is just a convenient myth, especially when the words 'technology', 'scientific-backing' and 'helmet-design', are intoned so religiously and so close together; and of course all are made possible by the defining word of this so-called sport -- 'chequebook'. The British budget to prepare for the winter Olympics? £6.5m (€7.4m).

No part of this lexicon is remotely Olympian. If anything, this contest is related to the ancient Schneider aeroplane trophy for seaplanes, where the combined skills of pilots and aeronautical engineers were tested over precisely the kind of closed circuit of the skeleton-bob, and rewarded accordingly. But in this 'sport', the real geniuses, the equipment designers, are anonymous, just as the pharmacists behind so many successful sprinters over the past half-century remain nameless and invisible.

The fiction that these Olympian events are actually 'sports' is largely sustained by the media, which report them on the sports pages, though they would be better placed in the science or technology sections. Indeed, the media have a central role in maintaining the toxic delusions of the Olympian myth, because all scepticism is suspended the very moment that 'one of ours' gets a medal.

Norway at this moment is probably beside itself with Nordic-glee that its five-man cadaver, made of titanium-platinum alloy that cost a year's oil production to make, won a gold in the 1,000 metre uphill. Meanwhile, Latvian newspapers are hysterical at their silver medal in the three-girl corpse.

Have we any contestants in the winter Olympics? I have no idea. Most of the events seem to be as authentically sporting as the 100 metres scaffold-erecting, or the bridge-building freestyle. Ah hello, and here comes the Irish team, and yes, it's 'Riverdance' on ice, competing for the bronze in the coxless cross-country sharp-shooting event, in which the contestants are finally judged for their underwater crocheting skills at -10C.

A small pause here, if you please, as we approach the final third of this column. A roll of drums, a fanfare, the lights go out: and the house goes suddenly dark. A single spotlight then picks out a single word, centre stage. There it is! Behold it, in all its awful majesty! The word is -- 'MEANINGLESS!!!'.

The entire Olympian movement is now almost totally valueless. Only a handful of athletic contests remain authentically Oly-mpian, as understood by poor old Pierre de Coubertin, who is otherwise swivelling in his grave like the driveshaft on Lewis Hamilton's McLaren as he wins the gold-medal in the final of the Olympics 100-metres assisted-sprint. These largely consist of long-distance running, which is dominated by low-technology, high-altitude African cultures, in which personal integrity remains a key-ingredient because of the modest background of the contestants.

This is true of boxing also. Unsurprisingly, this is where Ireland has done best in the Olympics, thanks to the efforts of working-class boys and their unsung, heroic trainers toiling in humble gyms. But money spent on Irish athletics is like money spent on electronic voting machines; and as for investment in Irish sprinters, why, that compares unfavourably with Bord na Mona's interplanetary rocket programme.

No chance of the Government winding up the Olympic Council of Ireland and sending its members as missionaries to Afghanistan to preach a new form of Christianity, in which female nudity is compulsory? No? Ah: I thought as much.

kmyers@independent.ie

Irish Independent

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