Team GB Snowed Under in Vancouver

Rarely has a sporting event begun amidst such chaos, with unseasonably warm weather and snow shortages themselves being totally eclipsed by the tragic death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili. It is with relief as much as joy then that the people of Vancouver and indeed the entire nation of Canada were able to celebrate a fairytale ending, with their men’s ice hockey team defeating arch rivals USA in overtime at Canada Hockey Place to the delight of the 18,000-strong partisan crowd. If the rough proxy of Facebook statuses is anything to go by then this final managed to create a real buzz on this side of the Atlantic as well, proving that while the particular nuances and idiosyncrasies of the sport might not be native to us, the drama translated perfectly.

The other real stand-out performance of the Games rather inevitably came from American snowboarder Shaun White, whose mastery of the halfpipe meant that he was able to retain the gold medal he won 4 years ago in Turin on his first run in Vancouver. Having defeated his opponents White used his second run to seemingly defeat gravity itself as he completed a “tomahawk”, flipping twice and spinning 1260 degrees before nailing a tricky landing. White epitomises the nature of his sport, being as much an entertainer as an athlete, and it comes as no surprise that the halfpipe and the snowboard cross, the four-way all-action race, have proved to be real crowd favourites in Vancouver.

Disappointingly, but also somewhat predictably Team GB return from Vancouver with a single medal, albeit a gold won in glorious fashion by Amy Williams in the skeleton. Williams set a track record on her way to victory, blowing away local and competition favourite Melissa Hollingsworth who seemed to lose her nerve and succumb to the pressure of competing on home ground.

On the whole though the Canadian team was greatly successful, topping the medal table ahead of Germany and, crucially, the United States. It was made clear before the Games in no uncertain terms that Canada wanted to eclipse its noisy neighbour; the ‘Own the Podium’ programme, whereby Canada invested around £72 million in order to elevate itself to dominance certainly paved the way for the team’s success, but has been criticised for being unsporting. Part of the plan involved the Canadian athletes getting as much as ten times more practice time than was available to other nations in some events – home advantage is one thing, but this was arguably a step too far.

The high-level of investment made by the Canadian government dwarfs the outlay made for Team GB, who had to make do with a relatively paltry £6.1 million. Financial issues have been a real talking point with Snowsport GB, the British governing body of alpine skiing and snowboarding, collapsing before the start of the Games. Having been tipped by this blog as a potential medal winner, snowboard cross competitor Zoe Gillings attributed her ultimately disappointing performance (she finished in 8th place) partly to the disruption of her preparations due to the funding issues.

The implication then is that more funding will equal more medals. Indeed Britain’s only medal came in the skeleton, which benefits from receiving around a third of the Winter Olympic team’s total budget. But how much is the attainment of Winter Olympics medals really worth? While the pursuit of sporting success is unquestionably a positive aim, perhaps in some circumstances it should not be paid for by the public, whether through National Lottery funding or government sponsorship. The counter-argument would be that the national good-feeling generated by Olympic success is well worth the expenditure, but while Amy Williams’ lone gold from Vancouver is highly commendable, it will not and more significantly cannot have the effect of inspiring young sportspeople to take up skeleton in any significant number.

Indeed, the greatest problem with the Winter Olympics is that the majority of its sports will never fully capture the imagination of the British public outside of the Games, during the other 1444 days of the four year cycle. These sports are simply not accessible enough, limiting involvement more or less solely to those for whom circumstances are sufficient. Of course a country’s climate is clearly key, but there also exist financial barriers which prevent mass participation. While the streets of Rio de Janeiro or Delhi might be teeming with children playing their national sport, the winter sports simply do not have this all-encompassing nature, regardless of weather conditions.

A sense of perspective is required; Great Britain will never intrinsically be a major force at the Winter Olympics, but the Games are a more or less unique opportunity to enjoy a collection of fresh and entertaining sports which can be appreciated regardless of national success. The true test of Britain’s Olympic credentials will come in London where, like Canada, we hope to be the headline act, the life of our own party. Roll on 2012.

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