Thrills, spills and granite pills at the Sochi Winter Olympics

From February 2014, a series of ill-considered opinions on the Winter Olympics at Sochi.

As the post-mortems begin on the 2014 Winter Olympics, it is time to face facts about the British performance. For all the excitement on show every four years, the only discipline in which we are consistently competitive is curling, comfortably the least exciting sport in the schedule. This is not to denigrate curling – as a game of precision and skill, it is right up there with, say, billiards. The problem is that in the context of the Winter Olympics, curling is like a game of billiards being played as half-time entertainment at a demolition derby.

Almost every other sport at the games has a comparably-high level of skill, speed, or endurance, but with one crucial dash of Tabasco in the fruit salad: the possibility of genuine, serious injury. As we all know, sport is all good fun until someone gets hurt. But, ghoulish though it may be, the greater that possibility of someone getting hurt becomes, the more all good fun the sport becomes.

Flicking around the red button, every event in Sochi had a pleasing level of mayhem and danger. Skiers somersaulted down mountainsides like rotor blades sheared off a helicopter; speed skaters played an elaborate game of human skittles; and snowboarders launched high into the air, flipping over and over before splatting down onto the snow, prone and motionless, like poorly-tossed pancakes. A team of Canadian bobsledders attempted to slow down 200 kilograms of metal with their own skulls, their helmets juddering against one another like a Newton’s cradle on top of a washing machine. Even the ice dancers flirted with doom, hammer-throwing one another about, sailing through the air and essentially attempting to land on the edge of a sword.

How can curling possibly compete with all this? The answer, undoubtedly, is to add jeopardy. Ice hockey’s decision-makers realised this, which is why they changed the rules to allow teams to call one time-out each for an old-fashioned playground bundle and punch-up. The way forward for curling is clear for 2018: it should become an outdoor sport, played exclusively on frozen lakes with variable and uncertain ice thickness.

Who can honestly deny that this would improve the sport as a spectacle? The added risk that a player might at any moment disappear into a watery abyss would activate that addictive voice in the viewer’s head: the wouldn’t-it-be-awful-if-but-at-the-same-time-I-wouldn’t-mind-seeing-what-it-would-look-like voice. And who can say they wouldn’t like to hear a softly-spoken Scottish commentator describing thin-ice curling:

“The British skip needs to curl his stone around the Swedish guard, glance off the stone to the front right of the house, and nestle onto the other one in the centre. A tricky shot in the best of conditions, but as you can see, visible cracks are now appearing in the ice under his feet. So he’ll not want to spend too long deliberating with this 20 kilogram stone in his hand, no no! And let’s all just hope we can get to the end of this semi-final in one piece and it’s not decided tragically like this morning’s was, by the intervention of a hungry bear.”

I’m no patriot, but if the British team could contend for medals under those conditions, I’d happily ignore the supergiant alpine faceplant competition, open a Red Bull to go with my red button and cheer on Team GB all the way.

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