The school of hard knocks

I would be the first to confess that I am a fair-weather sports enthusiast. Distinguished at school by an ability to run away from the ball rather than towards it, I firmly believe that sports belong on the television, where I can monitor them from a safe and comfortable distance. Once the fourth wall is in place, I can actually get enthusiastic about what’s going on rather than suspicious that someone might try to make me join in. It’s the perfect non-activity.

For me, the Olympics combine all my favourite things about armchair sports. They feature goodlooking people doing incredibly, amazingly, mindbogglingly stupid things, things that, were I ever to try to do them, would definitely kill me in thirty-five seconds flat. (For an example of this, please see ski jumping, an entire sport built around the mistaken belief that a human is like a flying squirrel). The Winter Olympics, although it should be less interesting than the Summer in terms of terms of both range of activities and British national interest, has always amused and fascinated me exactly because of that utterly elitist atmosphere.

Although the summer Olympics is all about inclusivity and togetherness and global love, the Winter Olympics is a different beast altogether. It is, let us not kid ourselves, about ten extremely rich countries laughing in the faces of all those parts of the world not lucky enough to get snowed on.

Faced with such a small pool of competitors to draw on, commentary for the Winter Olympics is always highly bizarre. This year, the BBC has apparently thrown up its hands in despair and decided to reinforce the underlying creepy anti-diversity Games message by essentially hiring the same person three times. Clare Balding, Sue Barker and Hazel Irvine, the latter unable even to change her jumper, are slowly merging together as the games go on into one great big blonde Aryan wig with teeth.

Watching it, therefore, becomes less actually involving and more like looking at the pictures of a party to which you personally were not invited. Amy Williams’ gold in the skeleton was very exciting, but it was over before any of us had really had time to understand exactly what was going on. Since then, the rest of the British team have been reassuringly bad, and the British population, who always felt vaguely uncomfortable and indecent about actually winning things in 2008, have been able to return to comfortable mediocrity and vague self-hatred. And, like many bitter stay-at-homes, I find that there’s nothing quite as enjoyable as a little bit of misfortune.

There’s something uniquely satisfying about watching a group of annoyingly smug and gleaming Aryans, their muscles bulging out of their shiny vacuum-packed outfits, launching themselves down a mountainside and then falling over. The moment when a downhill skier did a spectacular fumble half way down the slope, crashed spectacularly and then bounced several times was an occasion for great celebration in our living room. The German skier who came out of the starting gate for her one shining moment of fame and promptly swerved into the crowd still holds a special place in our hearts.

Even the commentators seem to have a sneaking fondness for catastrophe. When a Women’s Ski Cross competitor flipped upside down during her run, Graham Bell remarked, with obvious glee, ‘Bang. Straight on her head.’ It’s less funny when the athletes really hurt themselves, of course, but most of the time they turn out to be fairly resilient, and those are the greatest moments. Last week a skier somehow lost both of her skis and finished the course by sliding downhill on her behind like a child on a slide, whacking her poles against the ground and tantruming furiously. There really is nothing like misfortune to bring people together.

Britain’s greatest, because most prolonged, failure at this games, is of course at curling, where, to no one except the media’s surprise, we have failed to win either the men’s and the women’s tournaments. Unfortunately, BBC2 has still decided that curling is objectively better than ice hockey or skiing, and so we have been subjected to hour upon hour of people crouching on ice and squinting. Watching curling, despite the amazing seal-like barks of the competitors and Rhona Martin’s cranky uber-Scottish commentary, is a dire exercise. They might as well televise snail racing or synchronised sleeping. This is not only because it is essentially cleaning on ice, but because, with Tim Henman-like tact and modesty, Britain are once again perfecting the art of being A Bit Good, But Not Too Much. As soon as the curlers sense that victory might be imminent, they carefully send a stone slightly the wrong way, so as not to upset the other countries competing. ‘Why on earth were they doing that?’ asks Rhona Martin angrily. Indeed.

I’m sorry I’m being so mean, but the fact is that the Winter Olympics has made me this way. The _Mean Girls_ of sporting events, it’s turned me into an evil, vindictive person who laughs when people fall over and makes rude comments about everyone’s outfits. It’s probably a good thing for my state of mind that it only happens once every four years.


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