Meanderings

The Faceless Winter Olympics

To the non skier, the Winter Olympics can come across as a rather repetitive and boring spectacle.

Why? Because they are faceless.

Almost every competitor is clothed identically in layers of thermal scuba diving gear and gloves and goggles. They could as easily be the Teletubbies or terrorists. The only thing that separates one identity from another is a number and perhaps a small national emblem emblazoned on a shoulder. When one skier comes hurtling down hill, he could be anyone. In fact he could be the same guy coming down again and again. From a distance and without an announcer, who would know?

No one sticks out: and if they do, then it's by a tiny particle of barely measurable time. Before the invention of the stopwatch that could split a second into hundredths, every race must have been a tie. You have to ask, do we really want to know who is a molecular period of time faster than another guy? And if we do, is it worth building entire Olympic cities and stadiums just to find out? Couldn't they just hold the Olympics in a lab instead of carving up a mountain and turning it into a short lived boom town resort? Let the contestants build their own igloos from the snow or have prefabricated re-usable igloos shipped in and back out? If athletes were serious about their sport, they'd be willing to suffer a little ice for that gold medal. Why not make a competition of it?

I, of course must list myself among life's non skiers. At most I have dabbled but not inhaled.

Long ago when I was about 12 years old, I went ski-ing with the Boy Scouts. We were called The 1st (and only) Neilston Troop. We weren't much of an outfit. We didn't do many scouty things. Once a year we went to the Annual Competition Camp where we traditionally were last of the 6 district troops. We knew no knots beyond tying our shoelaces. Mostly we met every Friday at the Scout Hall and we played football. The actual scouting code was an unknown distant concept. So when we had the chance to go ski-ing up in Glen Coe, it came as a bit of a surprise. It sounded a bit too scouty. None of us had any experience in such things beyond sledging down the back park. This ski business was all new. It didn't even involve a football.

We were loaned some old skis of various lengths by a Barrhead scout troop. They also provided us with ski boots and poles. They invited us to their hall for a kitting out session. As we tried to match skis, boots and poles from what was literally a huge pile of odd abandoned ski relics, we resembled an outtake from a Laurel and Hardy movie: one of those scenes when the skinny guy is carrying a plank of wood on his shoulder and keeps accidentally whacking the big guy on the nose with it.

A week later though we were out on the snowy slopes of Glen Coe. I remember bending down and putting on my skis and feeling the wind suddenly getting up. When I looked up from my boots, I realized I was moving and gaining involuntary momentum. As I sped for the bottom of the hill, I began to do the inflatable rubberman semaphore wave. Voices behind me were yelling," Fall over. Fall over." So I leapt to the side and dived into the snow.

Before getting to my feet I had to loosen my skis. The moment I undid the first one, it skimmed like an arrow for the base of the hill. I was still clamped to the other one so I was unable to pursue it. Thus began my short ski career.

On retrieving my ski, I also noticed for the first time that one was a about foot shorter than the other.

The day continued as a comedy of errors. It was certainly a learning experience. Davie Kelly learned that ski-ing off cliffs was a bad idea. I learned that Gloves and sandwiches freeze solid within minutes of leaving your body heat. I also learned that I had prehensile muscles on my rear end that can grip a ski lift chair.

My encounter with the ski lift chair had come at the end of the long day when I was feeling worn down by the elements. The cold and wind had clouded my brain. We were standing half asleep beside the ski lifts, preparing to descend the mountain. I was wearing my back pack when the ski lift ladled me up and over the edge. When I tried to sit back, I discovered that the pack prevented me from getting all the way onto the chair. There was nothing I could do about it now that I was airborne and flying 3rd class with no plane and nothing to hold on to. My bare frozen hands were held up uselessly at face height because my inner elbows cradled several pairs of skis that had been dumped on me just before I was picked up. I'd been too numb to argue.

How I managed to stay on that lift defies me to this day. The chair seat comprised of 2 cross planks to sit on. My pack took up one and a half of these. This left me with mere inches to grip on to with nothing but my prehensile buttocks. There were brief moments when the chair almost touched the ground. I'd contemplate sliding off but then suddenly I'd be riding 40 feet up in the air. I'd grip the chair with my imagination more than anything. Despite turbulence and crosswinds and mounting panic, I miraculously reached the bottom just as all my cargo of skis tumbled from my arms.

I guess it's not easy to become a black belt skier if you don't live close to some semi permanent snow. If folks could rain ski, then I'd be good at it. You don't hear about many great sea surfers who live in Central Saharan Africa. Anyway here are a few events that I haven't noticed getting much attention in the Winter Olympics to date.

The snow ball fight event. This could be fought out in the old fashioned way or it could be fought on a paintball course using dyed snowballs that fire from paintball guns.

Best snowman or sculpture award.

Uphill ski-ing.

Snowshoe hundred metres.

The Icicle Javelin.

Why not re invent the slalom race? Instead of having those useless bendy poles that skiers just plough through anyway, let's have some solid obstacles that don't bend in the breeze. Stone cairns for example. Let's change the name from Slalom to Downhill Steeplechase or The Avoidawall.

And instead of the ski jump, why not have a canyon leap with adjustable width. Or keep it simple: if you make it across then you're the winner.

Avalanche surfing.

But the one event that has forever been conspicuously missing from the Winter Olympics is the sled dog racing. An Iditarod styled race from point A to point B that would last a week. This would be the equivalent of the Marathon. It could also spawn a new Olympic event: The Search and Rescue.

The Iditarod would have to be the culmination of several races over a period of time leading up to the Olympics that had produced a small group of finalists. It would not be feasible to have a giant group of racers all tearing around the mountains. Especially if in the end they are all separated by a mere hundredth of a second. That would be quite a pile up.

 But still. What about those faceless competitors. That is a problem. Until the participants' faces can be seen, there will always be a separation of fan and athlete. Frostbitten skiers wouldn't help sell the games to the public. Maybe they are already frostbitten or just plain ugly. They may already be subtly masking hideous injuries. I guess all those layers are necessary in order to be streamlined and to retain body heat. It's a delicate balance between getting frozen or getting noticed.

My second ski-ing experience was in the French Alps about 10 years after the Glen Coe escapade. I'd been working in a youth hostel near Annecy and as a small perk of the job, we were allowed to use some ski equipment and go up to the summit of the Semnoz for some ski-ing.

Well by now you already know the sad extent of my ski-ing experience. This time round we were going to do, "Ski du Piste", which I as a Scotsman took to mean, first we drink a lot of alcohol then we go ski-ing. Not quite. Ski Du Piste was cross country ski-ing. Not too slopey.

The Hostel supplied us with skis, boots and poles but couldn't supply the proper alpine sport clothes. So up the mountain we all went. Everyone had their own personal ski pants, goggles, balaclavas and parkas… except me of course.

Our expedition was made up of a chef, a receptionist, an electrician, a handy man and the assistant warden but once they got into their ski outfits they became anonymous skiers just like in the Winter Olympics. But me, I was a busker. I had but the clothes on my back. I had no change of disguise. There I stood in the snow, Denim skintight patchy trousers, several woolly pullovers, a denim jacket and a bogard hat. Yip. Kind of hard not to stand out on the slopes, especially when my borrowed big giant ski boots, skis and poles are added to the picture. I was getting some odd stares. "Surely he's not going ski-ing like that?" Alas he was.

 Off we went round the course. Daniel the handyman gave me a quick lesson on getting into the rhythm of it all then he zoomed off. Soon we were all quite spread out as we wound our way through the forest. After a while I decided to stop and roll a cigarette beside a big rock. Several spandex clad skiers slid effortlessly past. More than one glanced back over their shoulders at this moon booted cowboy apparition.

One way or another, I did accidentally succeed in making a skier stick out from crowd. But I doubt Bogart hats and denims will catch on at the ski jump. The only solution I can think of to banish chronic Winter Olympic blandness is to hold the Olympic Games in summer: somewhere it's nice and toasty with no snow.