There was a man on the radio the other day who was arguing that we shouldn’t bother with the Winter Olympics because we – countries like Britain, Ireland and, presumably Jamaica and Nigeria – were no good at the sports involved, so we shouldn’t waste our time trying to compete with the snow-deep, mountain-high powerhouses. What a slushy, wet blanket of a view.
With an attitude like that Columbus would never have put out to sea, the Vikings would never have reached Scotland, the Montgolfiers would never have taken to the air, Michelangelo would never have started drawing, imagining, inventing, it’s the sort of attitude that kept us in the dark ages while the Persians and the Incas and others were doing amazing things. In short, no one would ever have tried anything remotely different. So, you’ll have guessed, I think that bloke was wrong, wronger, wrongest.
Don’t get me wrong, most of the Winter Olympic athletes are stark-raving bonkers, putting life and limb in danger every time they strap on a ski, a skate or a snowboard. How they learn their trade without breaking their neck or falling foul of Health And Safety is a mystery to me. As someone who loses all sense of where she is after turning in a quarter of a semi-circle on solid ground, I haven’t a clue how those acrobatic half-pipers keep track of where they are or what they’re doing. I watch, open-mouthed, in awe, muttering imprecations, as they fling themselves about.
As for the tea trayers, well they are truly off their trolley, surely. And, don’t get me started on the ski jump. Whatever Eddie the Eagle was – and apparently he thinks GB is spending too much on the Winter Olympics now – he wasn’t a wimp. Just to stand at the top of one of those jumps is enough to turn me to jelly and there’s more than enough flesh to wobble wildly, if not quite enough to guarantee a soft landing.
The skiing I can understand, more or less, though my knees creak and my heart quails as they plummet downhill at ridiculous speeds with insouciant skill. And I admire the way they stand at the bottom, heart in mouth presumably, watching the clock and hoping to hang on to a medal by hundredths of a second. I’d hate that. The head-to-head racing, however manic, is understandable even to the ignorant and I found myself yelling myself hoarse cheering on a Swede in the cross-country relay.
It’s all exhilarating and fun and you can see why people get hooked. Just being in the mountains is invigorating and even if you start off at the SnowDome in Tamworth or the dry ski slope in Gloucester, if you keep persevering, you’ll end up in the snow somewhere, be it the Alps or the champagne powder of Colorado. Even the Norwegians, the cross-country colossi, train on roller skis in the summer, so you can learn to do that almost anywhere bar the beach and some of the pot-holed roads round by me.
“That Elise Christie, she’s obviously no good, she shouldn’t be there,” said the man on the radio after the speed-skating Scot had crashed out of yet another Olympic race. He’d picked the wrong one there. La Christie is one of the world’s best and was in form going to the Games but a nudge here, a caught edge there and her dreams were cold as ice. Sobbing in Sochi, pissed off in Pyeongchang, she was bloodied but unbowed. “I’ll be back,” she said.
It’s the winning that drives Christie now but the taking part is still the most important part of sport: without participants there’d be no sport, so every sport needs as many people as possible to play it. The broader the base, the more likely you are to produce champions, who inspire and nourish a desire to play and compete in others. Though sometimes it works the other way: Switzerland and Scotland were hardly places you’d associate with tennis before the advent of the sainted Roger Federer and Andy Murray.
Also, as the All Blacks appreciate, for a sport to be really successful it needs people who understand it and really care about it, irrespective of their playing prowess. It needs participants with passion at every level to survive and thrive.
Golf is rarely life-threatening – just make sure you’re not hit by a ball or club – or exhilarating in the way that faster sports are and you don’t have to be a supreme athlete or young to play it well. That doesn’t make it a bad or a dull or a boring game. Just the opposite in fact, it’s intriguing, exasperating and compelling and it’s good for all of us, especially if we can manage to keep on walking. And it’s amazing how effective a weird and wonderful swing, devised to cope with various aches and pains, can be.
As you probably know, it annoys me that people think you shouldn’t bother with things unless you can do them well. Frankly, that is utter – and I can’t think of a better word – bollocks. You miss out on so much fun. Don’t die wondering: take the plunge and try something new.