The Development of the Winter Olympics – Athlete Excellence or Performance Art

By Candice Lingam-Willgoss

While the Summer Olympic Games have remained largely true to their roots – the Winter Games have seen a raft of newly created sports being included in the line-up year on year. This Winter Olympics will see 98 events over 15 disciplines in 7 sports –skating, skiing, bobsleigh, biathlon, curling, ice hockey and luge. 12 of these are new events to be contested including:- Women’s Ski Jumping, Ski half-pipe, Team relay luge, Ski and Snowboard Slopestyle, and Snowboard parallel special slalom. The scope for the creation of new winter based sports seems to be something mirrored by what is viewed in ski resorts, with various different approaches to the ‘originals’ being trialled all over the slopes.

Extreme Sports or Winter Games

In a world which is becoming increasingly more health and safety conscious it is interesting that many of these new sports are ones that can be termed high risk. Are these high risk sports becoming more attractive to both view and participate in as an antidote to the ultra ‘safe‘ world we live in? Take the newly included Slopestyle event which has been introduced for both skiers and boarders, the main goal is to perform difficult tricks while getting the highest amplitude off jumps with emphasis on variety. The Luge programme has now had the Team relay included and while this variation has long been popular among luge aficionados it will be its first outing on such a big stage. In essence this event sees a sport often termed the ‘fastest sport on ice’, that saw the death of a young Republic of Georgia competitor at the Vancover Games being made even more high risk than it was before. Three sleds, four racers (a women’s single, a men’s single and a double, and a touchpad. Rather than the classic baton switch competitors must activate the said touchpad at the end of their run to open the gate for the next sled to go down.

With the inclusion of these types of sports it could be argued that the Winter Olympics is becoming closer to the recently created X Games at every outing, in fact Sean White is a key example of this. White is competing in two snowboarding competitions at Sochi, the halfpipe and the slopestyle and while he is already a two times Olympic Gold medallist he also holds the Winter X-Games record for the total number of gold medals.

The Winter X Games

The Winter X Games were created in 1997 after the 1995 creation of the Summer sport focused X Games and are solely focus on Extreme Winter Sports. The Events of the Winter X games are very much there to entertain and events are driven by spectacle, and the ‘wow factor’ – which begs the question are the Winter Olympics competitors from some of these newer sports a mix of athletes and performers? The tricks that a number of the new winter sports require individuals to carry out, are akin to those performed by entertainers and are as much a display of athleticism as guts and creativity. As Morris of the Telegraph says, ‘the inclusion represents the rise and rise of freestyle skiing and snowboarding, and brings an extra injection of awe to the Games ‘ (2014). This idea that there has been a change to the style of sports included in the games, is something Zimpfer discusses in his blog earlier this month when commenting on how a number of Olympic sports are now becoming “more like a performance than a sport’ (2014).

Need for change

This added ‘awe’ as Morris talks about may be a deliberate ‘marketing’ ploy of the Winter Olympics. The viewing figures for the last Winter Olympics peaked at the opening ceremony with 3.2 million viewers, a figure that dropped to as low as one million for some events. Compare this to the summer Olympics of 2008 in Beijing when figures peaked at 5.4 million and Athens at 8.68 million. While as a nation we may not have as many athletes competing, overall there is less interest in winter sports than summer, which begs the question is the inclusion of these new more exciting sports a necessity in order to entice a new group of viewers. Not just the winter sports fans but also the extreme sports fans and the younger generations?

Recent research has examined the newly termed Generation Y those born between 1980 and 1990. The previous generation X made up of the baby boomers are having to step aside as a new generation are becoming the marketing focus of big business, they are a generation of technology savvy, highly ambitious people who relish creativity, are open minded, and as such open to change – they display a patchwork of traits. One of these key traits is interestingly rule following – as a generation less likely to break the law or go against their parents, is this high profile, controlled, and legal style of sport satisfying the side of the generation that craves creativity and a fresh approach. The full spectrum of characteristics of the Y Generation is probably at this stage unknown, what is clear is that it is this sector that need to be drawn in and this is something that the commercially driven sports world is fully aware of.

Money, Money, Money

No area of sport is immune to the naked truth that all high profile events are a business opportunity and Winter Sports are no different. All sports see the commoditisation of sportsmen – to the extent that at times they are seen as little more than billboards for sponsors. The recent selection of the US ice skater Wagner over Mirai Nagasu – a choice cynics among us may consider was due to a need to satisfy sponsors as it would have been something of an inconvenience for BP to have to take her out of their latest commercials, I guess we will never know how much her marketability influenced her selection. There are of course questions over whether the IOC who ultimately made this decision did so in order to increase the attraction of this games to certain audiences where the corporate money lies.

This need to make all sport enterprise a commodity could be in part the reasoning behind this shift in sports that are now on offer at the games. Television companies need viewers and are striving to appeal to a wider more diverse audience, something these newer sports are clearly aiming to do. With the Winter Games now sitting in their own Olympic year rather than being the follow up to the Summer Games they have sought for many years their own individual identity – what seems clear is that they are very much finding their self.

1 thought on “The Development of the Winter Olympics – Athlete Excellence or Performance Art

  1. Pingback: Slopestyler Sliders – The Coolest of Cultures | Winter Olympics 2014 Blog

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