x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

The stars of the snow

Winter Olympians are the thrill-seeking rockers of sport who love to live life on the edge and are like rocks stars who spend much of their years on the road.

Lindsey Vonn, right, the glamour girl of the US ski team, poses with a fan after a training session in Austria last month.
Lindsey Vonn, right, the glamour girl of the US ski team, poses with a fan after a training session in Austria last month.

In a rare display of forward planning, I had already chosen both the topic and tone of this column by last Friday. Having heard one too many derisory comments about the Winter Olympics - usually from boisterous media pundits blinded to the allure of other sports by the glossy veneer of football - my patience had finally snapped.

So I was planning a light-hearted defence of Winter Olympians in terms even these self-consciously laddish critics could understand: rock'n'roll. The athletes they dismiss as a succession of interchangeable Lycra-sheathed Austrians are in fact, I planned to argue, the last of the rock'n'roll sportsmen. These are not dullards in day-glo but the punks of the piste. Just look at the evidence. Like rock stars, Winter Olympians spend much of their lives on the road.

Many of them, including the party-loving Bode Miller, even shun luxury hotels in favour of sleeping in the tour bus. Like rock stars, they frighten the moral majority. The American Lindsey Vonn caused controversy recently when she was pictured, in a skiing pose, on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine. Real ladies do not bend over, apparently. Perhaps they would like her to ski standing bolt upright in future, or with her legs crossed?

Like rock stars, they have cool nicknames. The Austrian skiing legend Hermann Maier is known as "the Herminator", while Canada's Manuel Osborne-Paradis is dubbed "Manima". These nicknames are fully earned. Much of Maier's success came after he smashed his leg in a near-fatal motorcycle accident, while Osbourne-Paradis's love of partying is betrayed by his portly physique. Not that he cares. "I'm not an athlete, I'm a downhill skier," is his standard response to those who call him tubby.

Which is exactly the point. Mainstream sport is inhabited by athletic clones: ultra-model professionals whose personalities have been scrubbed away by a lifetime of saying, eating and doing "the right thing". Even their occasional forays off the rails seem wholly predictable. The same old nightclubs, the same old story. In mainstream sport, the lone maverick has been edged into the sidelines. At the Winter Olympics, they remain centre stage.

This is the place to look for a 21st century George Best, Brian Clough or Muhammad Ali. By Friday evening, however, some tragic news from Vancouver reminded me of a darker similarity between Winter Olympians and rock stars: the potential for premature death. Nodar Kumaritashvili was travelling at 90mph on the luge when he misjudged a corner during a practice run and was flung into a steel column. His name will be chalked up alongside Ross Milne, Nicolas Bochatay and Kazimierz Kay-Skrzypecki, who all died at previous winter Games.

Of course, the premature deaths of rock stars tend to be self- inflicted, but the tragedies stem from the same source: thrill-seeking, blinkered courage and a wish to live life on the edge. Mainstream sport loves the language of danger - players "do battle" or "lock horns" - but in reality the athletes lead a safe and cossetted existence. Winter sports may lack the immediate glamour of, say, football. Their appeal may seem slightly nerdy, as cowbell-clanging fans obsess over wind speed and split-seconds. But beneath the Lycra lies a fast-beating heart that is pure rock'n'roll. Apart from curling. Obviously.

David Beckham walked past me once. It is not exactly an anecdote to dine out - maybe a prawn sandwich, at best - but it is true nonetheless. We were both enjoying VIP hospitality at Chester Racecourse in England, with some Ps being more VI than others, obviously. Beckham was supposedly celebrating another league-winning season with his Manchester United teammates, but looked incredibly glum as he swept past. This was just three months after the infamous boot incident, in which Sir Alex Ferguson added some flying footwear to one of his infamous hairdryer team talks. It was also just a matter of weeks before Beckham signed for Real Madrid. As he prepares to face United for the first time tonight, he may well ask himself a recurring question: was it a dud move?

United have won three Premier League titles and the European, FA and League Cups since then. Beckham collected a solitary Primera Liga title in Spain followed by an inglorious period in Los Angeles. But as he sees out his twilight years at the AC Milan Care Home for Elderly Footballers, he should know that he did the right thing. He did not move for the additional money or fame that he has undoubtedly accrued, but because it was important for him to taste failure, albeit only relative. Staying at United suited the plodding and contented nature of a Paul Scholes, a Gary Neville, even a Ryan Giggs, but Beckham would have tortured himself with thoughts of what could have been. Bitterness and rancour would surely have followed. Those seven seasons outside Old Trafford may not have delivered all the glory he wanted, but it gave him something far more precious: enough time and perspective to look back on his United days with a smile, which he will surely wear tonight, instead of the scowl I witnessed in Chester. Will Batchelor is a writer, broadcaster and self-confessed cynical sports fan. @Email:sports@thenational.ae