Regular readers of this blog will know that I have an odd fascination with the Olympic Games, linked to the subject of my advancing years. That is, now that I am 41 and officially “middle-aged” I am grappling with the reality of being beyond the possibility of ever competing at the Olympics. No matter how unlikely that proposition was in the first place (see my previous post: Nine Signs of Middle Age).
And you may also recall that on a recent trip to New Zealand I got to try out curling for the first time (see my previous post My Olympic Campaign). An odd activity, for sure, where colourfully dressed players slide 20kg stones of polished granite down the ice, and then their team-mates run ahead shouting loudly and sweeping the ice furiously as they go. But it is an Olympic sport, believe it or not, and in it I finally found my hope for belated Olympic glory. I mean, come on, how hard can it be to sweep ice, even if you are over-40 and pudgy around the middle?
Or so I thought.
Last week was the start of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics. I watched the opening ceremony on television, sharing a brief moment with about three billion other folks.
The lead-up to these Winter Games was not without controversy. The most expensive games in history; a winter sports carnival being held in place with almost no snow; an authoritarian President not scared of using Gestapo tactics; international focus on the questionable social policies of the Russian authorities; threats of terrorism and protest. But despite the surrounding noise, on the night it all went off like clockwork, and there is no denying that this Opening Ceremony was right up there with the best of them.
There was the usual assortment of lights and fireworks, choreographed dancers, and singing children to tug at the heart-strings. The staging was staggeringly good, including a stadium floor that doubled as a giant screen onto which moving images were projected, so the human performers became 3D details. A flying train that chuffed through the air in celebration of Russian industrialism was especially memorable, as was the troupe of graceful ballet dancers in cloaks made of fluorescent strings. They pirouetted on an illuminated floor, causing the glowing strings to flare up and down, round and round, so that the dancers looked like a flock of doves in flight. It was mesmerising.
Although for me, what really set this particular Opening Ceremony apart was the emphasis on all things “high-culture”. Konstantin Ernst, the show’s producer explains: “Unfortunately, unlike London, we cannot boast a plethora of famous world-known pop performers. This is why we are now focusing on what Russia is best known for musically around the world; namely, classical music.” Not to mention ballet, opera, and literature, all of which formed an artistic back-bone to the spectacle. Modern-day Russia might be a country given over to the pursuit of crass materialism, but the Sochi Opening Ceremony was not that at all. Instead it was delicate and refined and, dare I say it, actually quite classy.
Then, for the last week, I have been in the grip of Winter Olympics Fever, where unfamiliar sports I wouldn’t normally give a toss about suddenly become very important in daily life. Like slope-style skiing, skeleton, two-man bobsled and ice-dancing. And of course the curling, which I have a whole new appreciation of, thanks to my afternoon at the Indoor Curling Arena in Naseby, New Zealand. I have been glued to the TV for days now, watching the Olympic ice sweeping tournament, and dreaming of when it will be my turn.
Or I should say I was, until even this pipe-dream was cruelly snatched away from me. You see, it seems that this Winter Olympics it is not just me, but the whole of Great Britain that has gone curling mad, too. Matches are being extensively covered in all the newspapers, and big screens in bars and pubs across the country, normally tuned to “real sports” like soccer and rugby, are now showing the curling instead.
This sudden interest is in no small measure attributable to one Eve Muirhead, captain of the U.K. women’s curling team and the country’s sporting darling of the moment. She is not only a world champion curler and Olympian, but also a scratch golfer, award-winning bag-piper, and attractive fashion model, to boot. Photogenic, articulate, and a genuinely nice young lady with a “girl-next-door” attitude make her the perfect package, really, and the media-frenzy around her has single-handedly lifted the profile of the whole sport.
As a result of which I have learned (to my dismay) that curling isn’t quite the easy entry-pass to the Olympics I had assumed it would be. Eve and her team-mates are full-time athletes. They train daily for at least two hours in the gym, and put in three or four more hours a day on the ice as well. Eve is as fit and as lean as any sprinter. She has sponsors, and a coach, and even her own sports psychologist. For her, curling is her job.
But what really killed me was learning the ages of the curling team members. Eve is 23, and her three team-mates range in age from 21 to 25. Things aren’t quite that bad in the U.K. men’s curling team – the captain is 35, his team-mates in their late 20s – but that still wouldn’t leave much room for me. Ditto the Canadian team (oldest participant, man or woman, is 39); China (oldest player, 32); Denmark (39); Russia (32); and Sweden (34). To be fair, there are a few 40+ curlers at these Olympics, but mainly in the USA women’s team. Although not being American, and not being a woman, I suspect I would have issues.
In short, against all my expectations, it seems that curling is a young person’s sport requiring considerable skill. And this means that any hope I may have had of curling being my Olympic ticket – however fleeting or unlikely – has been smashed to smithereens. I am already out of contention, before I was ever in it.
All of which got me to thinking, again, about the whole subject of middle-age and how that precludes me from the Olympics (I know, I know, it is not just age; a near total lack of sporting talent might have something to do with it too. But please, allow me my dreams).
Anyway, it occurred to me that maybe I was looking at this whole thing the wrong way. Perhaps I should focus on the event, and not the sport. That is, if I can’t find a weird sport at the Olympics for me, then perhaps I can find a sport in a weird Olympics that would do the trick instead?
And guess what: a bit of research, and I discovered that in the bizarre world we live in, this at least is eminently achievable.
Olympic Art: Did you know, for example, that an art competition initially formed part of the Olympic Games? Baron de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics, was a bit of a culture buff, and was keen to ensure that art sat right alongside sports. Medals (yes, real medals of the gold, silver and bronze sort) were awarded in five different categories: painting, music, sculpture, literature, and architecture. Superb for me, really, given that I am still teased for having insisted on debating, chess and Scrabble being included as official sports at my junior-school sports carnivals.
Alas, the Olympic art events were cancelled in 1954. Not because art was considered unworthy or un-sporty, but because back in those days the Olympics required participants to be amateurs. And while the sportspeople all were, artists were considered to be professionals. Although perhaps things will change, now that even Michael Jordan and Roger Federer can be Olympians.
Nemean Games: Until then, however, I could perhaps achieve my ambitions at the other Olympics, being the Nemean Games. As you may know, the modern Olympic Games kicked off in 1896, inspired by those held every four years in Olympia, ancient Greece. But what is less known is that back then there were four games held in each Olympiad (four year period). These were the games at Olympia, followed by games at Nemea, Delphi, and then Corinth. In 1996 the Nemean Games were resurrected, with the following mission statement: “It is our belief that the modern Olympic Games, despite their obvious success in many respects, have become increasingly removed from the average person. Our goal is the participation, on the sacred earth of Greece, of anyone and everyone, in games that will revive the spirit of the Olympics”. The first took place in 1996, and have been happening every four years since. In 2012 there were 1,200 people from 19 countries competing.
The rules are that anyone who shows up is guaranteed a starting slot in a race, no matter how pathetic their sporting abilities may be. So the bottom line is that if I can haul-ass to the Greek village of Nemea in time for the next games (10-12 June 2016), I too can be a Nemean athlete, and thus properly speaking, an Olympian. Plus all races are held in a beautifully restored ancient stadium, which adds a touch of authenticity. On the other hand, to compete you need to wear a toga, which kind of diminishes the whole “I’m a hard-core athlete” vibe, don’t you think? And in the unlikely event I was to win, all I would get is a crown made of wild celery leaves. Not quite a Gold Medal now is it? Frankly, schlepping all the way to Greece for a bunch of supermarket vegetables is not the sort of Olympic glory I had in mind.
Cotswod Olimpicks: Another option, and a bit closer to home, is the Cotswod Olimpicks (spelt that way), which have been held each year since 1612 in Gloucestershire, England. This makes these games the oldest Olimpicks in the world, which would give a degree of bragging rights that these newbie Olympians can’t claim. Events include a tug-of-war, obstacle races, a marathon, and the ancient sport of shin-kicking, the rules of which are fairly simple: take aim at your opponent’s shins, and kick as hard as you can. If he or she falls down, you score a point. Then it is their turn, and they kick you. And so on. At the end of three rounds, whoever has the most points, wins. Which sounds awfully painful, now that I mention it, and thus probably not one for me.
World Alternative Games: These are brand new, started in 2012 as an alternative to the London Olympics. It is a genuine Olympic-style event, featuring 35 weird and whacky alternative sports, like bog snorkelling, cheese rolling, rock-paper-scissors, and worm charming (see descriptions of these in My Olympic Campaign). As well as chariot racing, man-vs-horse marathon, cockerel throwing, underwater hockey and wife-carrying.
This latter sport in particular intrigues me. It involves a 235 metre obstacle course, to be negotiated while carrying your wife on your back. Official rules include that the wife in question need not be legally wed to you – any woman will do as long as she is at least 17 and weighs over 49 kilos. Interestingly you are allowed to drop your wife – or “bounce her” in the sport’s lingo – for which you incur a 15 second time penalty (many competitors claiming it is worth it…). And for the winner, first prize is the wife’s weight in beer. But coolest of all – this is a sport with heritage. It supposedly traces its origins back to Norway c.1800, when bandits raiding nearby villages would often make off with stolen women on their backs.
Although where I think I might really be able to become an Alternative Games superstar is in the extraordinarily exciting sport of Pooh Sticks. In this thrilling contest you stand on a bridge, alongside other competitors, and each drops a stick into the water. You then race over to the other side, and watch whose stick goes faster. Believe it or not, there is even an annual World Pooh Sticks Championship, so I have some time to work on my skills before the next Alternative Games.
Redneck Olympics: And if that doesn’t work, I could instead make for that other well-known Olympic alternative, the Redneck Games (held every four years since 1996 at the same time as the “mainstream” Olympics). I am sure that somewhere in the official event list I can find my calling. Perhaps it would be mud-pit belly flop, or hubcap hurling, or seed spitting, or even toilet seat tossing. Although the party-poopers at the International Olympic Committee have ruined the fun – in 2013 they took legal action, as a result of which the Redneck Games can no longer use the word “Olympic” in the title. And without the prospect of being an Olympian, they are no longer for me.
Nude Olympics: The same, sadly, also applies to Australia’s own. Last year the IOC’s legal rifle took aim at Maslin Beach in South Australia, home of the Nude Olympics. Apparently, the IOC is not keen on the idea of people calling themselves Olympians just because the eat donuts nude, build sand castles nude, throw Frisbees nude, chuck water balloons nude, or show off their best bum, nude. Being Aussies, the creative organisers gave a big two-fingers-up to the IOC by renaming the event the Nudo Lympics. Apparently this hasn’t quite placated the IOC, which is still pursuing legal channels on the basis that this name continues to unlawfully infer an association with the Olympics. Which is a problem for me – if I am going to get my togs off to munch donuts, I want to know that my efforts will not be in vain.
Hemp Olympics: Fortunately, however, it seems that the legal reach of the IOC has not yet got as far as Nimbin, Queensland, Australia. Or maybe it has, but the offending Olympics didn’t notice, or just didn’t give a shit. Perhaps not unexpected from games known as the Hemp Olympics, held in honour of all things marijuana, and where you can enter into events such as joint rolling and bong-throwing.
But then just as I was about to rush out to buy a bong and begin training in earnest, the Sochi Winter Olympics unexpectedly restored my dreams. Not once, not twice, but three times.
First, Norway’s Ole Einer Bjoerndalen won the 10 kilometre cross-country sprint. A remarkable achievement, when you consider this made him the most successful Winter Olympian in history, taking his total medal tally to 22. But a stupendous victory when you consider that he is 40 years-old. Making him the oldest Winter Olympics gold-medalist, ever.
Then I watched the ski-jump, an insane event where grown men and women throw themselves head-first down a steep slope, before hitting a ramp to go soaring through the air for 130 or so metres. Exactly the type of lunacy you’d expect younger, more stupid people to engage in, and indeed, the Sochi Gold Medalist in this event was a 26-year-old from Poland. But wait – he only narrowly beat 41 year-old Noriaki Kasai from Japan, who won the silver, making him officially the oldest person ever to win a Winter Olympics medal. At the same age as me!! And what’s more, in an interview Noriaki said that he would compete at the next Winter Olympics, where he was confident he could go one better, and take the gold.
Inspirational, no doubt, although what chance would I have in cross-country biathlon, or ski-jumping? Which is why Winston Watts stands out, becoming the ultimate role model for frustrated 40-something wannabe Olympians, everywhere.
You see, as I learned last night, this fellow from Jamaica is 46. He is one of the oldest people competing at the Sochi Winter Games, as part of the Jamaican bobsled team. You remember them, don’t you? – four guys who against all the odds made it to the 1988 Calgary Winter Games, and the three Winter Games after, inspiring a legion of fans around the world and a Hollywood film as well. Then they disappeared, the novelty having worn off and the funding having dried up.
But this year, the Jamaicans are back, albeit in a cut-down two-man version. Winston has shelled out much of his own money to ensure their participation. He knows he isn’t going to win, but he doesn’t care – he is there for the fun of it, and to be able to say: “I am an Olympian”. He is fit and in shape, and apparently hugely popular in the Olympic village, where he has taken on a bit of a father-figure role, dispensing advice and hugs to the younger participants.
And when asked in an interview whether he could seriously hold his own against competitors who are mostly less than half his age, he replied: “Age is just a number”.
Way to go, Ole and Noriaki and Winston. See you all in Pyeongchang, South Korea, in 2018.