The crazy quest of Winter Olympians
Summer people and Winter folk are from different sporting tribes. Puck for us is a Shakespearean character, for them it’s a disc trying to masquerade as a ball. As clans, we are divided by surface (land and water versus snow and ice), temperature, vocabularies and acres of lycra. Summer people like to tease Winter warriors by borrowing lines from Erma Bombeck, who once observed that “I do not participate in any sport with ambulances at the bottom of the hill”. I used to make such jokes, too, but no longer. Now there’s just awe.
In 1980 I saw my first Winter Olympian and he was like a hooded ice God on the Time cover with his sister. Eric Heiden won five speed-skating golds—“Fort Knox on skates” The Washington Post called him—used to squat 300 pounds, said stuff to ABC News like “the guy who’s going to win is the guy who suffers the most” and famously had 29-inch thighs. I don’t think there’s been a year when I haven’t slipped him into my columns, for he was as intriguing as he was extraordinary, a modern beast with an old-fashioned sensibility, who once noted: “Heck, gold medals, what can you do with them? I’d rather get a nice warm-up suit. That’s something I can use.”
A few weeks ago, I met my first Winter Olympians. One was a Korean woman, a charming coach, who I asked with mortifying stupidity, “Oh, were you a competitive skater?” Yes, like four Olympic gold medals worth, you idiot. Sorry, Chun Lee-kyung. The other was a young Singaporean woman speed-skater who clearly was aspiring for the same Heiden-like lunatic strength of legs. Her name is Cheyenne Goh and she moves as speed-skaters do, their bodies folded in two and gliding past like an aerodynamic lycra blur.
No pun intended, these people are cool. To the point where even a Summer hero (rower Steven Redgrave) found place for a Winter legend in his book, Inspired. He writes about the downhill skier Franz Klammer, who kept winning a Jeep as a prize in legends events and kept giving it back. “I race for the glory of being fast, not for a prize,” Klammer said. “Well, unless the prize is a Mercedes.”
For all my early latitudinal issues with them—I’ve never walked in snow—I’ve grown to like Winter people, whose stories only leak slowly into our Summer world, whose skills we don’t understand—skiers could give cats lessons in balance—and whose worlds we don’t appreciate. Type “Lake Placid” into Google, which was twice a famous Winter Olympics venue, and instead up pops a film about the worst CGI giant crocodile ever.
Winter people compete in gloves, make for more breathtaking photographs and are truly sophisticated. In Summer Games, athletes understandably weep; in the Winter Games, figure skaters actually have a place called the Kiss and Cry area (where they and their coaches wait for their marks to be announced and you can guess the rest).
Winter tribes casually give out medals to competitors using brooms (curling) and possibly know more about sporting flight than Summer folk. Platform divers answer to gravity and fall towards earth from 10m, but freestyle skiers do somersaults while rising up to 6m into the sky.
Summer people compete in cities like Atlanta and Athens; Winter people do their Olympic stuff in St. Moritz and Chamonix and are stylishly precise. Consider this: Summer athletes, we know, wear golden spikes, but Winter conquerors have people just to sharpen their blades. As The New York Times recounted in her 1969 obituary, the three-time Olympic figure-skating champion Sonja Henie demanded that her personal skate sharpener take the train from New York to Chicago just for the few minutes it took to hone her blades, which are roughly a few millimetres wide, on which skaters glide, pirouette, take off, do quadruple jumps and land.
Winter people also operate at speeds which make their Summer cousins look lethargic. Usain Bolt’s 44 kmph top speed is what they’re like in slow motion. Downhill skiers go roughly 130 kmph, skeleton competitors fly face-forwards on sleds down chutes at 120 kmph and luge people go feet-first at 140 kmph. Everything here is exaggerated. Summer chaps have triple-jumped over 18m, but Winter ski jumpers can cross a football field. Just saying.
But most tellingly, Winter athletes, as I have written before, remind me of tightrope walkers who operate at high speed, where the separation of beautiful skill from dangerous consequence is a few millimetres. When I met the Singaporean Goh, she was helping to stack padding around the rink because falling is the speed-skaters’ birthright. Except that their skates are weapons, which is why their suits have inbuilt shin-guards and cut-resistant material in certain places.
Almost everything they do is stalked by the possibility of serious repercussion. Even the beauteous figure skaters are haunted by stress fractures. A luger died in practice at the 2010 Olympics, a freestyle skier was paralysed at the 2014 Games and recently the two-time Olympic snowboarding champion Shaun White released a video which starts with the words, “This show contains scenes that may be disturbing”. It’s about an October crash which earned him 62 stitches on his face.
In short, résumés here are like no other. Snowboarder Zoe Gillings once told The Telegraph about her six concussions, broken collarbones and crushed left foot. “Broke all the bones in the middle of it,” she said. “It looked like cornflakes apparently.”
It’s why Summer people should take a peek at the Winter Games next month, just sit back and savour these free spirits on a religiously cool quest. Of course they’re crazy, but maybe that’s where greatness arrives from, from this manic, exuberant need to ride on a literal edge while in pursuit of their finest art.
Rohit Brijnath is an assistant sports editor at The Straits Times, Singapore, and a co-author of Abhinav Bindra’s book, A Shot At History: My Obsessive Journey To Olympic Gold.