As the Winter Olympics of 2014 draw towards tomorrow’s close, the time has
come to bow in awe once again before the irresistible might of the Olympic
rings. The five conjoined circles have performed their traditional miracle
by transforming a range of sporting activities better suited to Monty
Pythonesque surrealism (The Ministry of Silly Sports) into an enchantment
for the weariest sporting palate.
With yesterday’s men’s curling final disappointment against Canada so fresh in
the memory, it would be disingenuous to deny the essential absurdity of the
walks, slides, glides, leaps and downhill hurtles that have enlivened recent
days. Watching the sporting world’s closest equivalent to One Flew Over The
Cuckoo’s Nest requires a special mental skill. Aptly for an Olympiad held in
Sochi, the Black Sea retreat beloved by Stalin, it is a gift for Orwellian
doublethink – the ability to believe two diametrically opposing, mutually
exclusive ideas with equal fervour at the same time.
On the one hand, at no moment while watching the more recherché pursuits (the
luge, the ski jumping, and, yes, as much as we love it, the curling) can one
fail to appreciate how ridiculous they are. So ridiculous are they, in fact,
that my instinctive assumption on first seeing that startling photo of the
two adjacent toilets in the athlete’s village was: “Aha, of course. A new
Winter Olympics event loosely modelled on synchronised swimming.”
On the other hand, even with such transparent pleas for psychiatric
intervention as the downhill skeleton, the injection of Olympic adrenalin
not only quickens the pulse, but enables you simultaneously to swoon at the
inherent nobility. You start out snorting with disbelief at the craziness.
Soon enough, the Games are churning out a treasure trove of memories.
A personal favourite came before the sport began, when in the opening ceremony
the Russian Police Choir performed its version of Adele’s 007 movie title
track, Skyfall. With the debate still rumbling about whether the Games
should have been boycotted over the host nation’s neanderthal attitude to
gay rights, the ultra-high campness of those gorgeously uniformed law
enforcers seemed to send a mixed message. Chuck in a sailor, a construction
worker and a native American, and what a debut it would have been for the
Olympic Village People.
Out on the snow, meanwhile, their anti-terrorist colleagues sported skis and
automatic rifles in the hunt for compadres of those protesting some 850
miles away in Kiev. Yet the embryonic civil war in the former Soviet
republic infringed so little on the Games that, here in Britain, the
brutality in Ukraine attracted infinitely less controversy than a intriguing
development in BBC commentary. While snowboarding may not be a national
sport, complaining about the Beeb certainly is. More than 300 viewers
formally registered their displeasure when three obscure commentators
screamed their support for Jenny Jones in the “slopestyle” snowboarding,
brazenly cheered when her rivals fell, and sobbed when she secured the
bronze. For the trio who brought the spirit of Wayne’s World to the
erstwhile home of Raymond Brooks-Ward and Dan Maskell, it was party time. Or
as a BBC statement put it: “This was a truly historic occasion… and the
commentary team were understandably very excited.”
“Truly historic” may strike you as a phrase more wisely reserved for events
such as those in Ukraine, even if Jones did win Britain’s first ever medal
on snow. But there is no overstating the raw power of patriotic pride to
make idiots of us all, and the tears were infectious. They flowed again for
Lizzy Yarnold when she took gold by lying very still and careering down the
ice faster than anyone else in the skeleton; and later for Eve Muirhead when
she led the women curlers to the bronze with victory over the Swiss. Who
would care to be neutral about that?
Having spent $50 billion to rebrand post-Soviet Russia as a cuddly Eurasian
bear, and to inflame national pride with gold in the country’s blue riband
event of ice hockey, Vladimir Putin cannot reflect on Sochi as a tremendous
success. The gay rights row and the troubles in Ukraine reminded us that
Russia has a long way to travel before she joins the vaguely civilised world
– while in an even less successful rerun of the 1939 Winter War, the men’s
ice hockey team lost in the quarter-finals to Finland.
For Britain, a record medal haul does constitute unqualified success. Yet to a
country that treats these Games more than anything as a diversion from
reality, and leaves the real medal neurosing to Canada and the Nordic
nations, the appeal of the last fortnight has lain beyond the pure sport.
With all respect to Torvill and Dean, John Curry, Robin Cousins, Lizzy Yarnold
and other members of our elite corps of golden ones, the glory of the Winter
Olympics rests primarily on their peculiarity. Disco diva cops exciting Mr
Putin with a performance to make the Scissor Sisters look like Motörhead.
BBC commentators partying like it was 1499 in medieval bedlam. Vanessa-Mae
sensationally reinventing herself as a hybrid of Yehudi Menuhin and Eddie
the Eagle, by finishing not merely last for Thailand in the giant slalom,
but in a different time zone from the rest of the field.
It goes without saying that those of us who have become alarmingly hooked on
the mayhem will miss the Games sorely. But at times during the past two
weeks, the armchair viewer must have wondered why someone in the household
spiked the breakfast tea with mescaline, and I can’t help feeling that once
every four years is enough.
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