At the Winter Olympics, which start in Vancouver on Friday, some of the world's top athletes will compete in the sort of sports we in the balmy UAE can only dream about. Jerry Langton explains how to tell your luge from your skeleton and why ice hockey fans are so excitable. Lars Nystrom works for a Swedish company that sells medical equipment. He travels all over the world and has a few clients in Dubai. And when he told them he was taking two weeks off in February to watch the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada, he told me they were as surprised as if he said he was taking two weeks off to travel to the Moon. It's not that they weren't aware of them. It's just that they couldn't understand why someone would devote holiday time - which they were well aware is the most precious thing for an entrepreneur with children - to sit and watch people slide down hills.
And why should they? Because of its climate, winter is when the people of the UAE play the sports that people in colder climes play in summer (unless, of course, they want to settle for the rinks and ski slopes in the malls). In fact, the UAE has never sent a representative to the Winter Olympics. If you look at the host countries and medal standings - dominated by cold and/or mountainous places such as the US, Russia, Germany, Canada, Sweden, Switzerland and Japan - you'll see why.
It's different for people in those countries. Nystrom grew up in Uppsala, Sweden, which is rocky and cold. Because of how close it is to the North Pole, there are days in summer that can have 22 hours of daylight and, far more depressing, there are days in winter when the there is barely any daylight. With snow and ice and chilling darkness all around, he says: "the only way to keep from going crazy is to make the best of it and play."
And play they do. The game that gets the most attention at the Games by far is ice hockey. Many of the participating countries have professional ice hockey leagues and, in many of them, it's the biggest attraction there is. Nystrom grew up playing, and nearly made it pro before his knees gave out. At the Winter Olympics, the ice hockey games have a feeling very much like football's World Cup, with supporters cheering on their national teams with flags, costumes, chants and songs. And the similarity does not stop there. The sport is similar to football, although the players are on skates, the goal is far smaller, the ball is a hard rubber disc called a puck, and instead of their feet, players use long sticks. Oh, and they are also allowed to hit each other. Just not with the sticks.
With only one gold medal at the Winter Games since 1952, the Canadians are looking for a return to glory on home ice, but face stiff competition from the rapidly improving Americans, old rivals the Russians, the Czechs, the Finns and, Nystrom maintains, the Swedes, the defending gold medallists. "The smaller rinks in Canada favour them and other bigger, more physical teams like the Americans," he says. "But they won't be able to get many past Lundqvist." That's Henrik Lundqvist, the Swedish goalkeeper and national hero, who plays professional hockey in New York City. His team, the Rangers, recently signed him to a six-year, US$39 million (Dh143 million) contract.
After hockey, the most important events at the Winter Olympics involve figure skating. Most fans used to focus on the men's events, especially back in 1988 when American Brian Boitano did his dangerous routine blindfolded to earn the gold medal against his archrival, Canadian Brian Orser. But since then, attention has turned mainly on the tiny female athletes whose gravity-defying antics would not be out of place in the Summer Olympics gymnastics routines. Except on cold, hard ice.
The competition is fierce, as American Nancy Kerrigan found out in 1994 when her rival Tonya Harding hired a thug to attack and attempt to disable her with a metal bar. Although the Americans have traditionally been the team to beat, they don't look that great this year. Their best hope - former silver medalist Sasha Cohen - failed to make the national team, and is considered too old at 25 to be a serious contender. Instead, keep your eyes on South Korea's Kim Yu Na, a 19-year-old trained by Orser who is also a beloved pop singer in her home country.
The rest of the popular sports involve sliding down mountains very quickly. (There are also events that feature sliding across flat surfaces, but they are slower and far less popular.) A generation ago, it was all about skiing. The Winter Olympics launched stars such as France's Jean-Claude Killy on the world scene, but it has since faded from glory. It's been replaced by faster sports that reek less of wealth and establishment.
Much of skiing's thunder has been stolen by snowboarding. Many of the events take place in what's called a half-pipe - a huge concrete half-cylinder. Snowboarders fly off one side, turn around in the air, and then do it again on the other side. Watch for daredevils from the US, Canada and Japan to be the favourites. Two of the big sliding sports are luge and skeleton. I'm sure their fans will hate me for saying this, but they are virtually the same sport. Participants cram themselves into super-aerodynamic form-fitting suits, get on their tiny little sled and fire down the mountain as fast as they can go. The only real difference is that skeletoners ride head first on their bellies, while lugers ride feet first on their backs.
Both are fast, dangerous, thrilling and a bit ridiculous - perfect for television. The comedian Jerry Seinfeld put it perfectly: "It's the only sport I've ever seen where you could have people competing in it against their will and it would be exactly the same." While it might be tempting to consider all survivors winners, the real luge favourites are from Germany. Their women have won 32 of the last 33 world championship medals. Their men are a bit less dominant, with competition from the Italians, Swiss and Austrians.
Another very popular sliding sport is bobsleigh (often called bobsled). One, two or four men or women speed down a mountain in a rocket-shaped sled. The sport became world famous in 1988 when the Jamaican team qualified despite never having had snow fall on the island in recorded history. They never finished better than 14th but won a lot of fans, and a major film, Cool Runinngs, along the way.
But Nystrom doesn't have an answer when his more tropical friends and associates ask him about the strangest Winter Olympic sport - biathlon. Combining cross-country skiing with target shooting, biathletes strap on some skis and rifles. Then they slide for a predetermined distance, stop, shoot some targets and slide away. Depending on the event, they may have to repeat this a few times. Nystrom has watched the sport out of curiosity but doesn't actually understand why people do it. "It seems odd to me," he says. "That's why the Norwegians always win, they're an odd people."
Considering the cold and danger of many Winter Olympic sports, they might just all be odd people. The XXI Olympic Winter Games will take place in Vancouver and Whistler from February 12-28.