x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Winter Olympics are a television spectacular masquerading as a sports event

I readily accept that I may well be in a minority of one but, to these eyes, the Winter Olympics are a nonsense.

Eddie
Eddie "the Eagle" Edwards, the British ski jumper, soaring to fame at the Calgary Games.

I readily accept that I may well be in a minority of one but, to these eyes, the Winter Olympics are a nonsense. Biathlon, ice dance, moguls and aerials leave me - and I offer no apology for saying so - totally cold. On a freezing winter's morning at home in my native Scotland when the white stuff lies deep and crisp and even, no one enjoys knocking off Frosty the Snowman's top hat with a well-aimed snowball more than me; but I would not expect to be awarded a gold medal for doing so.

If being able to perform a twisting somersault without skewering yourself on one or both skis represents sport then how about carving a scaled down model of the Taj Mahal from a block of ice? There are a small number of obvious exceptions - Alpine skiing and ice hockey come to mind - but while most of the events featured in Vancouver looked like frolicsome fun, how many of them are what we regard as genuine sports?

I would not deny Per Parka and Annika Anorak their right to gather together every four years for a lark in the snow but why should it be under the Olympic flame? Whereas 204 nations competed in the Beijing Summer Games, only 82 countries sent teams to Vancouver. Can any event from which most of mankind is excluded because they inhabit warmer climes really be termed Olympian? I do not seek to belittle the dedication of the competitors, their prowess and undoubted - or, as we saw on the luge track, sometimes tragic - courage, but I find the four-man bobsleigh, for example, utterly baffling. OK, the driver drives but apart from providing a push start what do the other three members passengers actually do? They sit there with their heads down and for that they award medals.

The one and only Winter Olympics I chose to attend were the Calgary Games of 1988. I can recall sitting in the stadium on the morning of the opening ceremony watching scores of workers shovelling the snow into trucks to be transported elsewhere. When the centre field was finally cleared, another caravan of trucks arrived as replacements importing vast mounds of pale blue crystals which were promptly scattered far and wide. The reason for this bizarre exercise? The television companies had deemed the natural snow as being too white for their cameras. To me, that optical illusion perfectly sums up the Winter Olympics; a television spectacular masquerading as a major sports event.

In a deliciously ironic riposte, in the space of a few, brief hours nature proceeded to rid Calgary of every last flake of snow when the warm winds of a Chinook blew in, sending the temperature in the Olympic city to around 20C - warmer than Marrakech that February. As a member of the Reuters news agency team, I had been kitted out in expensive cold weather clobber and can still recall the looks on the faces of the locals, who had taken to wearing Hawaii shirts and Bermuda shorts, as we came into view resembling the annual outing of the Scott of the Antarctica Appreciation Society.

With our bobble hats and goggles, gloves and scarves and padded jackets and fleeced-lined trousers, all we lacked was a couple of tennis rackets strapped to the soles of both ski boots and a couple of huskies to complete the ludicrous package. To complete the overwhelming sense of surrealism, although Calgary was bristling with the stars of snow and ice such as Alberto Tomba, the Alpine skier who won two gold medals on an artificial track, and figure-skating diva Katarina Witt, the twin sensations of the Games were Eddie "the Eagle" Edwards, the British ski jumper, and the Jamaican four-man bob team. The Bob Marley crooning quartet made most of the descents on their heads but inspired the Hollywood movie Cool Runnings while the Eagle plunged to global celebrity from his wobbly perch atop the tower.

Twenty-two years on, our Eddie, in his misty spectacles held together with sticking plaster, remains the Olympic movement's unlikeliest superstar. Last by a distance in the 70m and 90m events, the myopic bird-man of Cheltenham held the eyes of mankind. Ronald Reagan, the US President, famously interrupted a White House cabinet meeting to watch the Eagle plummet to fame with the words: "Sorry, guys. I just gotta watch this fella..."

Invited to appear on The Johnny Carson Show, Eddie's tales of ineptitude reduced fellow guest Burt Reynolds to tears of hilarity and he returned home as a conquering hero to reach No 1 in the Finnish pop charts (despite not speaking one word of the language) with his idiosyncratic rendition of Mun Nimeni On Eetu (My Name Is Eddie). The Eagle had managed to wow his Canadian hosts even before taking flight; on arrival at Calgary airport his battered suitcase burst open on the baggage carousel revealing an unsightly collection of thermal long johns. As he bent down to retrieve the trail of underwear, his glasses smashed on the floor as his trousers split.

As he described the subsequent mayhem: "After I managed to get my case half shut and was leaving the airport, I spotted a huge banner hanging from the ceiling saying, 'Welcome To Calgary: Eddie The Eagle.' Because I wasn't looking where I was going, I walked straight into the solid plate-glass door. The trolley disintegrated, my skis went skidding across the floor in different directions, my case sprang open, my clothes flew out and I tripped over the mess. Canadian television showed my arrival on every news bulletin for a week."

The Eagle had landed... sports@thenational.ae