By Simon Rea
On the 7th February the Olympic torch arrived in the Russian resort of Sochi, nestled beside the Black Sea, having been carried by 14,000 torch bearers over 65,000 kilometres through 83 states of Russia. Its arrival marked the start of the 22nd Winter Olympics and the first to be held in Russia. These Games will be the most compact in Olympic history with two main sites – The Coastal Cluster that includes the 40,000 capacity Fischt Olympic Stadium and the Mountain Cluster 18 miles to the north in the Caucasus Mountains. The Coastal Cluster will host events such as ice hockey, speed skating and figure skating with the skiing events being held in the Mountain Cluster.
President Putin is hopeful that the twin ‘mega events’, the Winter Olympics of 2014 and the Football World Cup in 2018 will boost the positive image of Russia around the world, just as the Summer Olympics of 2008 and 2012 did for the cities of Beijing and London. This is a dangerous game to play as amid the terrorist threats, accusations of human rights abuses and restriction of the freedom of expression Russia are also presiding over the most expensive Olympics Games in history. These Games are expected to cost the Russian taxpayer around £32 billion in comparison to the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver that cost £5.3 billion or London 2012 that cost just under £9 billion. The road between the Mountain and Coastal clusters has cost as much as the budget for the entire 2010 Winter Olympics and led to an opposition Minister enquiring if it was paved with caviar.
The Winter Olympics were first held in Chamonix in 1924 with 250 athletes from 16 Nations. In Sochi there will be over 2500 athletes from 88 different Nations, including Zimbabwe and Togo for the first time, competing in 98 events in 15 different sports. The first Winter Olympics were dominated by athletes from Norway, Finland, Austria and USA. Medal tables in subsequent Olympics show that this trend has continued with most medals being won by European and North American nations. It is not too surprising given the shortage of physical resources that there has never been a Winter Olympic medallist from Africa or South America.
Slip sliding away
There have been many memorable moments in Winter Olympics history, such as Torville and Dean’s perfect rendition of Bolero and Herman Maier crashing and landing head first during the downhill skiing in Nagano only to walk away and come back to win gold medals in the giant slalom and Super-G events. There have been honourable failures, such as Eddie the Eagle soaring to last place in the ski jump and the Jamaican bobsleigh team ending up travelling down the course upside down.
The most successful winter Olympian is a Norwegian cross-country skier, Bjorn Daehlie, who won 12 medals including 8 golds between 1992 and 1998. He was reputed to have a VO2 max (measure of aerobic fitness) of 96ml/kg/min which is one of the highest ever recorded. He was also an athlete of great sportsmanship. In 1998 he had become aware of a Kenyan skier, Philip Boit, who was competing in the 10k race. Boit had only been skiing for two years and had excelled at 800 m running. He started training on ski rollers in Kenya before making his way to Finland to try snow for the first time. Boit’s event was won by Daehlie but rather than going directly to the medal ceremony he waited twenty minutes for Boit to finish so he could congratulate him on his achievement. Apparently Boit informed Daehlie that he should enjoy his moment as he would beat him in Salt Lake City in four years’ time. It started a lifelong friendship and Boit named his first son after the Norwegian champion.
Bringing it back home – who to watch for the medals?
The Russian team are confident of a significant haul of medals to excite their supporters and their biggest hope is the men’s Ice Hockey team which contains several of their sporting icons. However, Canada are the defending champions in this event and along with the Americans are always very strong. When looking at potential medallists it becomes clear that certain Nations are historically successful in certain events. For example, Norway dominates cross-country skiing, Austria in ski jumping, Germany in the luge and bobsleigh, the Netherlands in speed skating and USA in snowboarding. The following athletes are generally viewed as some of those most likely to make it to pinnacle of the podium.
- Kallie Humphries is the Canadian driver of the two-woman bobsleigh and is reigning Olympic and World Champion. Kallie has been known to develop power for the start by pushing cars in training.
- Shaun White is an American snowboarder who competes in the halfpipe event. Known as ‘the flying tomato’ in tribute to his red hair his signature move is the Double McTwist where he rotates through 1260 degrees or 3 1/2 turns.
- Sara Takenashi is a 16-year old Japanese schoolgirl who is aiming to become the first winner of the women’s ski jump event. She has the perfect attributes for a ski jumper as she is under 5 foot tall and as a trained ballerina came to the sport with exceptional balance.
- Felix Loch is the reigning champion in the luge and expected to win again. In 2010 aged 20 he became the youngest winner of the event that was overshadowed by the death of a Georgian competitor, Nodar Kumaritashvili, during practice for the event.
- Lizzy Yarnold is the British world champion in the skeleton event. British sliders have had success in this event during the last three Winter Olympiads and with Yarnold and Shelly Rudman, the silver medallist from 2006, expectations are high.
The British Olympic team are hopeful that this can be their most successful Winter Olympic Games to follow the most successful Summer Olympic Games. Irrespective of British performances the events, especially those with inherent dangers, are always going to be thrilling. Added to this the stunning facilities in a magnificent setting the Sochi organising committee are promising a truly memorable Winter Olympics.