Monday 21 January 2019

Get ready for a Winter wonderland

Fireworks are set off during the Opening Ceremony of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games. Photo: Sean M Haffey
Fireworks are set off during the Opening Ceremony of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games. Photo: Sean M Haffey
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

God, I love the Winter Olympics. The headlong velocity of the downhill skiing, the grace and elegance of the figure skating, the courage of those hurtling down the ice in the skeleton, the potential for Keystone Kops chaos in the short track skating, the daredevil manoeuvres of the snowboarders, the soaring of the ski jumpers, the acrobatics of the aerial skiers, the Broadway pizzazz of the ice dancers, and , above all, the sensation of the curtain being lifted on a whole marvellous sporting world which between games remains hidden from us. The Winter Olympics are a beautiful marvel.

The great American critic Dave Hickey wrote about his preference for art which made you go 'huh' first and 'wow' afterwards rather than the other way around. We spend an awful lot of our time watching sport which was all 'wow' beforehand, big football games which arrive trailing clouds of hype and leave us wondering what all the fuss is about, saying 'huh' in spades long before the end.

The opposite tends to happen with the Winter Olympics. Your expectations are usually low when you start watching, largely because you don't know very much about either the athletes or the sport. Yet if you give them a chance these marvellous games will transform your 'huh' to a 'wow' before you can say Apolo Anton Ohno.

That's because the Winter Olympics provide viewers with something commensurate to our capacity for wonder. It abounds in obviously difficult sports which require both bravery and technical excellence, sports which can't help but elicit a gut reaction of instantaneous admiration. That's why it'll be worth staying up till the early hours or getting up early in the morning to catch the big moments from PyeongChang.

Even if you can't manage that, you won't miss much by waiting to see the highlights. You'll probably be able to get through the day without someone divulging the result of the snowboard cross, the moguls or the luge. And watching them will prevent you being the bollocks who says, 'Did you ever see Cool Runnings' any time the Winter Olympics is mentioned.

The games are to a large extent the domain of competitors whose excellence is equalled only by their obscurity in terms of the general public. Perhaps the two biggest stars on show are a pair of American skiers whose quests for gold should make their discipline the most compelling on view over the next fortnight.

Lindsey Vonn is one of the finest downhill skiers of all-time. Her 81 victories in World Cup events is a record for a woman and no-one has surpassed her total of eight World Cup downhill titles. Yet she has just one Olympic gold, won at Vancouver in 2010. That's because she missed the 2014 Olympics after aggravating a knee injury suffered in 2013 when Vonn was probably at her peak, having won her sixth World Cup title on the trot. The Minnesota woman recovered to win World Cups in 2015 and 2016 before suffering a severe arm fracture in November of the latter year which sidelined her once more.

She has fought back and will start as favourite to win both the Downhill, the blue riband event of Alpine skiing, and the Super G, yet she is not as dominant as she once was. Now 33 she has rivals snapping at her heels, the likes of Italy's Sofia Goggia, who's leading this season's World Cup downhill standings and Switzerland's Lara Gut who's doing the same in Super G.

Then there's Mikaela Shiffrin who, in the absence of Vonn, became the golden girl of American skiing when winning the slalom in Sochi at the age of just 18. There are already predictions that Shiffrin can become the greatest skier of all-time and she has a real chance of equalling the record of three gold medals set by the Croatian Jana Kostelic at the 2002 Olympics.

Shiffrin is a virtual cert to repeat her win in the slalom, where she's won four of the last five World Cup titles, and is likely to also win the Combined event. In the giant slalom her battle with Germany's Viktoria Rebensburg, current World Cup leader and 2010 Olympic champ, and reigning world champion Tessa Worley of France, should be one of the contests of the games.

To stir the pot a bit further, Shiffrin has also entered the Downhill and Super G events. Her inexperience at these very different events (she's only raced twice in World Cup Super G) should rule her out of contention. Yet though it's hard to see her stealing Vonn's thunder in the older skier's specialities, the young pretender might well sneak a medal in one of them. If you're only going to watch a couple of events, make them the finals of the downhill on Wednesday week and of the giant slalom whose final stages get under way at a quarter to five our time tomorrow morning with the dénouement shortly after six.

There's less intrigue surrounding the men's Alpine competition, and the downhill will have been decided by the time you read this, but they do offer the chance to see one of the games' finest performers, Austria's Marcel Hirscher who's won eight of the last 12 World Cup titles in Slalom and Giant Slalom. Hirscher looks nailed on for a double but four years ago he only managed a second and fourth. Norway's Henrik Kristoffersen, whose slalom bronze three years ago at the age of 19 made him the youngest men's skiing medallist ever and who's been Mayo to Hirscher's Dublin of late, could pounce in the event of a slip-up.

The games come at a fraught time for host nation South Korea who have tried to ease tensions by combining with North Korea to enter a unified women's ice hockey team and marching along with the representatives of their bellicose neighbour in the opening ceremony parade. It's always good to see home winners at a games but in the circumstances South Korea deserve it more than most.

Their big chance will come in the short course skating where 21 of the country's 26 Winter Olympics golds have been won. A huge burden rests on a couple of extraordinary youngsters, 18-year-old Hwang Dae-Hon in the men's events and 19-year-old Choi Min-Jeong, who'll be taking on big British hope Elise Christie, in the women's 500m. Yet the emotional high point for the home crowd may come in the relays which take place near the end of the games and where South Korea's main rivals are Canada in the men's race and Holland in the women's.

I Tonya fans will be pleased to know that the women's figure skating features a rivalry between two skaters from the same country, though without the conspiracy and knee-breaking. A month ago Evgenia Medvedeva looked a cert for the gold medal. Double World and European champion, the prodigious 18-year-old has posted some of the highest scores in figure skating in history. Then, at January's European Championships, along came 15-year-old Alina Zagitova to relegate Medvedeva to second place in a huge upset.

Zagitova will be bidding to emulate Tara Lipinski who won gold at the age of 15 in 1998. Of course neither she nor her rival would be competing at all if it weren't for the fudge which has allowed certain Russian competitors to compete as 'Athletes from Russia' rather than official representatives of a nation banned for its organised doping campaign prior to Sochi.

This does provide ample opportunities for 'the whole Winter Olympics is a disgrace' rhetoric, especially should Russia finally win a men's ice hockey tournament, entirely devalued by the American NHL's decision not to release its players. This makes it like a World Cup with nobody from the Champions League. But the Russians will barely make double figures medal-wise and will be far from the most interesting story of the games.

Every major sporting tournament doesn't necessarily have to be the occasion for performative exhibitions of moralising. Do you begrudge those two teenage girls their chance for glory? Really?

I'd be a lot more interested in how things go for Shaun White, who's probably done more than anyone else to popularise the sport of snowboarding but only finished fourth in the half-pipe event in Sochi when trying to make it a hat-trick of golds.

The man they call the 'Flying Tomato' is back again. "I ripped my face open in New Zealand trying these tricks," he says about the routine he hopes will put him back on top. He did too, needing 62 stitches after a fall in November.

A great personal favourite of mine is the snowboard cross which sees the competitors race over a series of humps in what's the closest thing sport comes to a Super Mario Kart race.

Favourite for gold in the men's race is Australia's Alex Pullin who I see is "a guitar player, a songwriter and a singer." Of course he is. With a reggae band called Love Charli.

There is something irresistible about the bohemian stuntman quality of snowboarding, an event where, for all the laid-back cool of its leading exponents, the pain barrier is often more than metaphorical. Like so many of the events on show over the next fortnight, it demands your respect and shows that there are a variety of roads to competitive excellence. There is more to sporting life than different forms of football.

Watch as much of this games as you can. Watch and marvel. You might see the best thing you see all year. You might see something that sticks you with for the rest of your life.

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