Friday 21 September 2018

Bluffer's guide to the Winter Olympics

Ahead of the Games kicking off this Friday, Darragh McManus provides some insight for the uninitiated

Ice cool: Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy of Germany perform in Sochi. Photo: Paul Gilham/Getty Images
Ice cool: Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy of Germany perform in Sochi. Photo: Paul Gilham/Getty Images
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

The Winter Olympics, unlike its summer equivalent, has never troubled the public imagination too much in Ireland (or anywhere outside of a handful of countries). For mostly climatic reasons, the sports involved barely register: we're more about hurling than curling.

Which, in a funny way, makes this such fun to watch every four years - it's so different from the norm. We forget it even exists until a few weeks beforehand, tune into these exotically wintry pursuits for a fortnight, then forget again until 2022.

Obviously you'll want to waffle on about all this at work. But are you worried you can't tell the difference between a skeleton and a bobsleigh? Never fear: get a (ski) jump on the competition with our cut-out-and-keep Bluffer's Guide…

WHAT?

The XXIII Olympic Winter Games.

ALSO KNOWN AS

Normal Olympics' Weird Sibling; The Big Freezy; The Zero Degrees All-Ireland.

WHEN?

February 9-25.

Margot Robbie in I, Tonya
Margot Robbie in I, Tonya

WHERE?

PyeongChang.

BUT ISN'T THAT WHERE…

Nope, you're thinking of Pyongyang - capital of North Korea. This is in the south… though worryingly close if Kim Jong-Un gets itchy trigger fingers.

CHANCES OF THIS ACTUALLY HAPPENING?

We don't want to think about it.

MASCOTS

Soohorang, the white tiger and Bandabi, the black bear.

North and South Korean athletes will hold a unified flag for the opening ceremony. Photo: REUTERS
North and South Korean athletes will hold a unified flag for the opening ceremony. Photo: REUTERS

NUMBER OF EVENTS

102, across 15 sports - Alpine skiing, biathlon, bobsleigh, cross-country skiing, curling, figure skating, freestyle skiing, ice hockey, luge, Nordic combined, short track speed skating, skeleton, ski jumping, snowboarding and speed skating.

ONES THAT MEAN NOTHING TO US

Biathlon, luge, Nordic combined, skeleton.

EXPLAIN PLEASE?

Nordic combined is, well, a combination of cross-country skiing and ski jumping; biathlon appears to be the re-enactment of a random James Bond scene, with its skiing-and-shooting double-whammy (it used to be called "military patrol").

MOST TERRIFYING EVENTS

A tie between luge and skeleton. Both involve hurtling down an ice-track at face-shredding speeds on what seems to be a small ironing board. Lugers do it feet first, lying on their back; skeleton is tummy-down, facing forward. They look equally insane.

Clifton Hugh Lancelot de Verdon Wrottesley, 14th Baronet, 6th Baron Wrottesley
Clifton Hugh Lancelot de Verdon Wrottesley, 14th Baronet, 6th Baron Wrottesley

NATIONS COMPETING

92.

NATIONS COMPETING UNDER THEIR OWN FLAG

91 - Russia has been suspended, after a state-sponsored drugs scandal, but individual athletes who qualify may take part under the International Olympic Committee flag.

NATIONS COMPETING FOR THE FIRST TIME

Six - Ecuador, Eritrea, Kosovo, Malaysia, Nigeria and Singapore.

WHAT ABOUT NORTH KOREA?

After diplomatic negotiations, the 22 athletes (ice-hockey, Alpine skiing, cross-country skiing, figure skating and speed skating) who have made it into the Games can cross the DMZ into South Korea. Both nations will march together during the opening ceremony and there'll be a unified women's hockey team, which is all rather moving - almost enough to bring tears to a snowman.

IRISH INTEREST

At time of writing, several hopefuls are battling to qualify: Cormac Comerford (Alpine skiing), Patrick McMillan (downhill skiing), Tess Arbez (Alpine), Thomas Westgard (cross-country), John Brown (freestyle skiing), Brendan Newby (freestyle), Seamus O'Connor (snowboarding), Kieran Norris (Alpine) and Emma Ryan (Alpine).

LIKELIHOOD OF MEDALS

Slim… sigh. If only they had a "chilly, breezy and prone to flooding" Olympics.

GREATEST NAME EVER FOR AN IRISH OLYMPIAN

Clifton Hugh Lancelot de Verdon Wrottesley, 14th Baronet, 6th Baron Wrottesley (below). He came fourth in the skeleton at Salt Lake City, 2002.

FIRST HELD

1924 in Chamonix, France.

MOST OFTEN HELD

United States (four times).

NEVER HELD

In the southern hemisphere, as it's their summer at that time.

MOST SUCCESSFUL COUNTRY

Norway, both in gold medals and overall number of medals.

CLASSIC FIRESTORMS

The last Games, in Sochi, were mired in controversy before (Putin's anti-gay agenda) and after (systematic Russian doping). In 1994, American skater Tonya Harding was banned for life after her ex-husband hired an assailant to batter the knees of her rival Nancy Kerrigan. Salt Lake City Organising Committee was accused of bribery in securing the 2002 Games.

MOST UNLIKELY HERO

Michael 'Eddie the Eagle' Edwards, the heroically inept ski jumper who became a global sensation in Calgary 1988 for being, eh, heroically inept. And for wearing very thick glasses under his goggles. They made a movie about this guy, you know.

OTHER WINTER OLYMPICS FILMS

Cool Runnings is probably the most famous; The Cutting Edge is best; Blades Of Glory is silliest; Downhill Racer is most Robert Redford-ish; and I, Tonya is most recent.

TONYA BEING...

Yes, Ms Harding mentioned above. Margot Robbie plays her in a film which, according to critics, "humanises one of sport's greatest villains".

LITERARY REFERENCES

Surprisingly few, given the inherent dramatic nature of these events. There are a sprinkling of actual Olympics-based novels: Downhill Racer by Oakley Hall (source material for that Redford film), Roberto Bolaño's The Skating Rink and Winter Games by Rachel 'sister of Boris' Johnson. Various winter sports are also mentioned, sometimes in passing, by Robert Burns, Louisa May Alcott, Edith Wharton, Agatha Christie, Ian Fleming, Tolstoy and Margaret Atwood.

TV AUDIENCE

The last Winter Games had a total global viewership of 2.1 billion, which compares surprisingly well to the 2016 summer Olympics in Rio, with 3.6 billion.

MOST MEMORABLE MUSICAL INTERLUDE

What else? Torvill and Dean gliding over the ice to 'Bolero' in Sarajevo 1984.

INTERESTING FACTOID

Skijöring - skiing behind dogs - was a demonstration sport in St Moritz in 1928, and a sled-dog race was held at Lake Placid four years later.

BIZARRO FACTOID

Vanessa Mae, the famous British violinist, represented tropical Thailand in skiing at the Sochi Games. There were later allegations that certain results had been fixed to ensure her qualification.

WHERE TO WATCH

RTÉ is showing the Opening Ceremony live and an hour's highlights of the action every evening (times vary), with Clare MacNamara and Darren Frehill in South Korea. For the less patriotically minded, you can watch the whole thing live on BBC and Eurosport. Note: South Korea is nine hours ahead of us.

DO SAY

She totally nailed that backward triple axel. And her Bielmann spin was perfect.

DON'T SAY

Jaysus, it looks fierce cold.

Irish Independent

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