Winter Olympics: A rundown on what to look forward to at Vancouver

By Brad Carr

I’m writing this in Everett, on the northern outskirts of Seattle. Best known as the site of the Boeing wide-bodied jet factory (which, incidentally, I can thoroughly recommend as a tourist excursion if you’re ever in the area), it’s one of those industrial places on the fringe of a major city that sits somewhere between being its own entity (as locals would like to perceive it) and merely an industrial suburb of the greater metropolis. If you’re in Melbourne, think Werribee, but without the zoo; if you’re in Perth, think Rockingham without the beaches…

The convenience is that the local Amtrak rail route will (touch wood) take me from here to Vancouver tomorrow morning. And after a couple of days there, I then head on to what I consider my ‘home mountain’: Whistler. Indeed, Whistler is probably second only to London when it comes to the ‘rite of passage’ for young Australians – when I worked a season there several years ago, it was generally understood around town that one-third of the workforce were Australians, generally people in their 20s on Working Holiday visas, and I still regard those six months as the ‘worst money but best quality of life’ I’ve enjoyed. It makes these Games perhaps the closest thing Australia will ever get to a ‘home’ Winter Olympics, in terms of both crowd support and where our athletes are likely to have previously competed or trained.

My hotel TV is tuned to the Opening Ceremony, and I might even end up watching some of it, if the conspiring forces of afl.com.au and aussiesports.tv continue to prevent me from downloading the highlights of the mighty Eagles’ triumph over the Bombers (even if it is just the NAB Cup). But in all serious, I am really excited about these Olympics – I had initially slotted in a few days at the Games as just a bit of a filler along the way in my month-long ski safari, but now it feels like the main event.

As a Games preview, I should stress upfront that this will not cover figure-skating/ice-dancing – an activity for which my lack of knowledge is matched only by my lack of interest. The subject of considerable controversy in judges’ scores in just about every Olympics, this activity (or so-called ‘sport’) only serves to highlight the problems of ‘judgemental’ sports. Yes, they are very talented skaters, achieving a form that is particularly impressive in its graceful movements, and is well deserving of exhibitions in major city venues for those interested. But in my mind, Olympic medals should be awarded for performing a task faster, higher or further, or scoring more goals, rather than for a subjective assessment of how graceful you looked whilst doing it. In our beloved sport, it’s about kicking goals (or in my team’s case, points), not how you look whilst doing it (probably shouldn’t say that too loudly, with nine-point goals going on this week, I don’t want to give them more bad ideas).

I’ve also left out Curling, mainly because the Poms are rated a big chance, and I’m still way too dirty about them winning the Ashes to be able to bring myself to talk about that possibility. Ok, like Andy Murray, they’re actually Scottish, but they’re competing as Great Britain, and if they win, the Poms will be happy – that just doesn’t sit well with me.

So, here’s my brief preview of the subset of skiing/ski-jumping/snowboarding/speed-skating/sledding/skating-with-a-stick (to keep the alliteration going, for ice hockey) sports:

Skiing:

This pursuit is represented in many forms at the Olympics: alpine or downhill skiing, which itself takes different forms across pure speed and different forms of slalom courses; freestyle, which takes in things like jumps and navigating moguls courses; cross-country, which is bloody hard work and relies on you using your own power rather than gravity.

Venues:

Shared between Cypress (one of Vancouver’s city mountains) and 2 hours up the Sea to Sky Highway at Whistler, with the Freestyle events at the former, the others at the latter. Down in the city, the recent snowfalls have been extremely sparse (making it roughly equivalent to Mount Hotham on its best-ever day), necessitating the trucking and helicoptering of snow in from other sites. No such worries at Whistler where they have had record snowfalls this year.

Competitors to watch:

  • Dale Begg-Smith (Australia): about as Australian as I am Canadian, Begg-Smith is a key member of what Greg Baum described in The Age during the tennis as the Australian Athletic Adoption Agency (AAAA). When he won gold at Turin in 2006, his celebrating parents admitted they had never been to Australia (suggests to me that their son probably hasn’t spend a lot of time in his adopted country), and Baum aptly described Begg-Smith’s own demeanour that night as being “as demonstrative as a man snapping shut a briefcase.” Good to see our taxes going to someone who’s really passionate about what it means to wear the green-and-gold. I hope he wins, but that hope is more about getting our country a stat in the G-column on the medal tally, rather than anything I’m going to get too worked up about.
  • Bode Miller (USA): Probably past his best, and unlikely to win this time – but for a time, he was the best skier (of any type) going around, probably 2nd over the last decade only to Austrian Hermann Maier. Miller took a pair of silvers away from Salt Lake City and won the overall World Cup in 2005 and 2008, but had his 2006 Olympic campaign end in tatters when he dominated the Combined but missed a gate on the last run, after which he made himself a permanent late-night fixture at a series of Turin bars. As a result, he competed the following 2 years as an Independent (rather than as part of the US ski team). I’d love to see him do well here. When I find myself skiing on a wide open run with no-one else around, Miller is the one that I might privately imagine myself emulating, albeit that I ski at 1/10th of his speed and with 1/10th of his control – but it’s like when you’re bowling leggies in the backyard, you’re thinking “Warnie.”
  • Lindesy Vonn (USA): Widely regarded as the world’s top female skier, Vonn had been picked by the US media to emulate Michael Phelps, and was favoured by most to win 3 of her 5 events. Plagued by a terrible run of inopportune injuries (eg. in training in Turin 4 years ago), she’s done it again, injuring a shin in training this week. Possible weather-based postponements of some events may help her recovery. I reckon she’s a tough enough character to get a win somewhere, but the injuries will stall her attempt at multiple-gold glory.
  • Kwame Nkrumah-Acheampong (Ghana): Dubbed the Snow Leopard, Ghana’s first ever Winter Olympian had qualified for the Slalom and Giant Slalom events. He’s actually spent much of his life in Glasgow and Milton Keynes, which, whilst colder than Ghana, are hardly noted ski spots either. Will be likened to ‘Eric the Eel’, but let’s hope he can get perform sufficiently credibly to shrug off the inevitable label of tokenism.
  • Ted Ligety (USA): Ligety won gold in the Combined at Turin, and is rated by a couple of US media sources as the 2nd-favourite behind Austrian  Benjamin Raich. Such is not a sentiment shared by his octogenarian grandmother, who I met on my train from Montana to Everett yesterday. With her passion in the stands cheering him on, I’m not going to discount him.
  • A host of Scandinavians: expect Finland, Sweden and Norway to dominate the Cross-Country events

Ski-jumping:

A couple of days after Bradbury’s infamous ‘keep-your-feet’ effort in the speed-skating, Alisa Camplin put this sport on the map for Australians. Having come 3rd on the first jump (and with the final jump to be staged in reverse order), Camplin landed her final jump, then watched the 2nd-place-getter land terribly. I remember turning to my then-flatmate and saying “she’s going to win Winter Olympic gold the traditional Australian way: standing up when everyone else crashes.” So it transpired, and Camplin did for Australian ski-jumping what Australia II did for yachting.

Venues:

The Aerials event that Camplin triumphed at will be at Vancouver’s Cypress mountain (and so is subject to the scant snow supply there), whereas the enormous death-defying jump is up at Whistler

Competitors to Watch:

  • Lydia Lassila (Australia): Lassila has overcome the ACL injuries that plagued her during 2006, when she was struck down in the second round of the Olympic event. She’s a big chance here.
  • Anton Kushnir (Belarus): Not a nationality you’ll often see on the dias, but Kushnir has dominated the World Cup men’s Aerials events this year.
  • Gregor Schlierenzauer (Austria): In the high/long, death-defying jump (I really can’t think of any other way to describe this endeavour, but if you can picture the activity I’m talking about, you’ll understand), Schlierenzauer holds every world record, and would be likely to win golds in the Normal Hill, Large Hill and Team events.

Snowboarding:

Apparently, snowboarding can be quite a lot of fun. How anyone knows this is unclear, given that those with snowboarding equipment generally spend their days sitting on the ground playing with their bindings, either in the unloading area at the top of a chairlift or wherever on the mountain they can find a narrow, soon-to-be-congested throughfare where they can get in the way (you probably need to be a skier to understand that one).

Venues:

The Half-pipe and Snowboard Cross events are all at Cypress mountain (see comments above re sparse snowfalls at this site).

Competitors to watch:

  • Torah Bright (Australia): Torah gets quite a lot of media attention, but  I hesitate to say this suggests she’s any good, as she’s rather photogenic. That said, she has won a few events on the World Cup tour, so at least she’s more Ivanovic than Kournikova.
  • Nate Holland (USA): Would be well known to those who follow the X-Games, where he recently won the Snowboard Cross event for the fifth consecutive year.

Speed-Skating:

Best known to Australians for Bradbury, this sport takes a couple of forms, being the short-track and long-track.

Venues:

2 venues in Vancouver: the Pacific Coliseum in the CBD will be used for Short-Track in the first few days (before the venue is handed over to ice-dancing), whilst the long-track events will take place around a larger oval-shaped course in suburban Richmond.

Competitors to watch:

  • Apollo Anton Ohno (USA): The appropriately-named Ohno had a great vantage point for Bradbury’s triumph, being one of the front-runners that lay sprawled on the ice as our hero reached his destiny (though Ohno did get a couple of golds in Turin). He’s been one of the best in the world for the last decade, and hails from Seattle, so is almost on home-ice.
  • Shani Davis (USA): Davis is a high-profile but controversial figure in the US. Raised by a single-parent in poor areas of Chicago, his is a great story of ‘making good’, though most of his mother’s statements remind more of the ugly-tennis-parent. Possibly the USA’s best-ever on the long-track, the yanks favour him to win 3 of the 5 events he’s entered in.
  • Tatiana Borodulina (Australia): another import, Brodulina was actually competing for her native Russia not that long ago. Whilst talked up in the Australian press, her name is conspicuously absent from medal calculations in the international media. Let’s hope she can bob up and prove them wrong.
  • Christine Nesbitt (Canada): Just to show that we occasionally give one back, Nesbitt was actually born in Australia (though moved to Canada at a very young age, so it’s a pretty tenuous claim that we have). She’s favourite for both the 1,000m and 1,500m on the long-track.
  • Wang Meng (China): A big chance to sweep all 4 women’s short-track golds, though might struggle on the longer distance event (1,500m) event; should feature in each of the other distances though.

Sledding (Bobsleigh, Luge, Skeleton):

The Games suddenly find itself completely over-shadowed by the tragic death of Georgian luge competitor Nodar Kumaritashvili on a training run at Whistler today. Desperately sad, it will serve to highlight concerns that had apparently been voiced all week about the safety of the track. Ordinarily, I would rate the skeleton as the most dangerous event – it’s essentially the luge but going head-first.

Venue:

The Whistler Sliding Centre is at the base of the Blackcomb mountain, and will be the subject of intense controversy and scrutiny as to its safety over the next few days. I’m not sure there’s much they can do to fundamentally redesign the course so promptly, but expect there to be pressure to make some modifications. When I worked at Whistler, one of our regular evening activities was (after a few beers) to pour detergent down the metallic toboggan track that was then situated on the current Sliding Centre site, so as to lubricate/accelerate it, then jump on ‘crazy carpets’ (essentially like rubber door mats) and see where it sent us (generally over the edge at some point). Far more reckless than Kumaritashvili’s training sessions, and extremely fortuitous that we never copped more than minor bruises.

Competitors to watch:

  • Andre Lange (Germany): Lange partners with Kevin Kushe in Germany’s 2-man bobsleigh team, and he’s the driver in their 4-man team also. Will go very close in both events.

Skating-with-a-Stick (Ice Hockey):

Hockey is the national sport (actually probably more an all-encompassing phenomenon) in Canada. Once again, the professional NHL is being suspended for a fortnight so that the pro’s (Canadian, American and various Europeans) can compete, but some US-based NHL owners are agitating to cease this practice for 2014 as they feel the fortnight’s hiatus does more harm in breaking their competition’s momentum that it adds through global exposure. Expect a very hot debate on this subject between now and the games in Sochi, but it does amplify the emphasis for now that this could possibly be the last Olympic ice hockey tournament with full-strength teams.

Venues:

The major venue is the Vancouver Cancucks NHL team’s home rink ‘GM Place’, temporarily re-named ‘Canada Hockey Place’ for the duration of the Games. Some preliminaries are also being played at the Uni in suburban Richmond. Expect all finals and all Canadian matches to be played in extremely intense atmospheres of 20,000 crowds.

Competitors to watch:

  • Canada men’s team: All the heat’s on these guys, a massive weight of national expectation on them. Canada went crazy when they broke an Olympic hoodoo at Salt Lake City in 2002, and there were recriminations when they crashed out in the quarter-finals in Turin. At both the Montreal 1976 summer games and the 1988 Calgary winter ones, the hosts went inexplicably gold-less; these guys carry the most pressure when it comes to remedying that. On the other hand, they’re also the best.
  • Sidney Crosby (Canada): Canada has been screaming out for a new Gretzky (Wayne Gretzky was essentially their Bradman), and they reckon this 22-year-old is it. Hailing from a small town in Nova Scotia, he has already captained the Pittsburgh Penguins to the NHL title.
  • Alex Ovechkin (Russia): Crosby’s great rival, and sure to be cast by Canadians as the chief villain of the Games. Ovechkin’s Washington Capitals were pipped by Crosby’s Penguins in last year’s Eastern Conference play-offs, but not before the 2 frequently clashed. Crosby says the physical Ovechkin targets him; Ovechkin says he plays it hard against anyone. Russia shapes as Canada’s chief challenger, with Ovechkin leading the charge.
  • USA Women’s team: A lot of expectation on this side; expect them to play Canada in the final.

Comments

  1. Brad – that’s avery informative summary. The winter Olympics and winter sports are as foreign to me as Year 12 Physics. I will watch some of the Games and see if it wins me over.

  2. Peter Flynn says:

    Thanks Brad,

    From somebody who has ‘snow’ idea, you’ve illuminated me somewhat.

    Any word on the Skeleton?

  3. Fantastic preview, I was watching the Luge this morning and that final corner is truly terrifying. One competitor went high, way too high and was about 30cm away from repeating the tragic event that had occured on the same corner earlier in the week.

    They may have shortened the track and raised the sides, but that corner is just too dangerous. I’m really concerned there’ll be another accident.

  4. Hi guys, thanks for your feedback. The last few days up at Whistler have been fantastic, I went skiing myself for the day on Monday and got to ski right up to the fence to watch the Mens Downhill, awesome to get that close to the world’s best skiers when they’re in Olympic competition.

    Peter, today really marks the point where the Sliding Centre gets handed over from Luge to Skleleton, and after a couple of days of that, it will then go on to Bobsleigh. The key names being talked about in the Skeleton are:

    Men’s:
    Martins Dukurs (Latvia)
    Tomass Dukurs (Latvia) – those 2 are brothers
    Frank Rommel (Germany) – definite WW2 memories with that name, albeit a long way from North Africa
    Jon Montgomery (Canada)

    Women’s:
    Kerstin Szymkowiak (Germany)
    Melissa Hollingsworth (Canada)
    Anja Huber (Germany)

    To elaboate on my description of the Skeleton, whereas the Luge involved lying on your back and going feet-fitrst, this involves lying on your stomach and going face-first. I think both are common in the sense of transferring your body-weight from side-to-side to steer yourself. Whilst I’m no biomechanics expert, my sense is that the Luge involves using your hips/glutes/hamstrings (and maybe abs) to do that transferance of weight to steer, whereas I would imagine the Skeleton probably demands more on doing that transferance through your shoulders, upper-body, etc.

    I’ll write something more in a few days re my experiences at the Speed Skating and the Downhill Skiing.

  5. Peter Flynn says:

    Cheers Brad,

    Will the skeleton track be modified?

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