Why the Olympic flame burns brightest in Winter

Why the Olympic flame burns brightest in Winter
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After 18 days, nearly 100 events, and thousands of tweets about accommodation in Sochi, the 2014 Winter Olympics are officially closed. So long to skis, luges, curling, bobsleds and ice hockey for another four years.

The Games reached around 2.157 million Australians daily, or 13% of the total population. This is comparable with the US which peaked with a 13.7% share. The UK saw 3.08 million viewers watching at the Games peak, which is not that impressive considering 8.64 million people watched Coronation Street in the same week! Overall, through the duration the Sochi Games reached around 55% of Australians, while the London Olympics two years ago had a reach of more like 80% of us.

Despite ratings been somewhat soft, and our trophy cupboard lacking any gold, Sochi reinforced my belief that the Winter Games are more compelling and generate more engaging content than their more famous Summer sibling. Here’s why.

  1. To Australian eyes, the whole concept seems so exotic. Fairytale-like ice villages nestling under towering Alpine peaks. There’s a deep other-worldliness to these pictures coming in late at night at the tail end of a long, very hot Australian Summer.
  2. The incredible physical risk present; that essence that Fairfax’s Greg Baum once described as “improbably brutal”. Many of the events (ice dancing possibly excluded) seem to represent a barely controllable battle between gravity, friction and inertia, armed with equipment ill designed for the task. We see competitors shoot themselves down chutes and mountains, and hurtle around ice, and very often mangle themselves in the process. It seems you’re not a real Winter Olympian if you can’t point to broken bones, knee recos and smashed vertebrae, and that’s just from training. This is one instance where you do believe the “life and death” narrative so often peddled in sports coverage. The Summer Games seem positively staid by comparison.
  3. The Winter Games give the impression of being so much more innovative, youthful and experimental; creating relevance and just better reflecting the contemporary relationship between young people and sport. They add new events frequently (12 new events were added for Sochi alone), and not coincidentally these are the events most driving the next day conversation – ski and snowboard cross, slopestyle, half pipe – really embracing the X Games mindset. Yes the Summer Games have introduced BMX, but it just feels more a token nod to the kiddies from a disapproving grandparent than a true desire to embrace change.
  4. They have loads of the most valuable ingredient in any sporting event – unpredictability. The brutal environment means any competitor is only a snowflake or an ice particle away from wipeout. Snowboard and ski cross is full of upsets, exponentially more so than say, track and field. In some events, the challenge for even the most accomplished competitor is just to complete what they set out to do – see aerial skiing, slopestyle and snowboard and ski halfpipes. Imagine if Sally Pearson smashed into hurdles 60% of the time, and that’s what this feels like. It’s fantastic drama.
  5. It seems to possess such a feel-good nature. Everyone genuinely looks like they’re enjoying themselves. There seems sincere camaraderie amongst direct competitors, rushing over to be the first to congratulate each other on a great run, or to check their condition after a fall. Maybe it’s a young person’s thing, maybe it’s because they spend a lot of their time together in remote locations training and competing the rest of the year, maybe it’s because they’ve lobbied to get their sports included and genuinely look beyond their own performance. And maybe it’s also because of the physical risk they know they are all taking that they are thrilled when a competitor safely nails a run or a jump. Probably all of these, but it’s so refreshing to see a major event largely free from histrionics, posturing and ego.
  6. It’s a different but no less compelling Australian narrative. During the Summer Games, stories run to the navigation of the medal count, and Golden Girls and Awesome Rowers dominate from the water to the track. What we celebrate in Sochi is just making it there. It’s so improbable for Aussies to do so. Aerial skiers who learn by jumping off trampolines into swimming pools. Bobsledders tearing up bitumen roads in Townsville. Dedication, single-minded pursuit of the goal, overcoming obstacles, taking whatever is available and jerry-rigging it into something special – these are our great stories. And a bronze medal at the end of it – in the top three in the world! – wow, what a yarn.
  7. Ice Hockey. Enough said.

So, I am disappointed we’re not all talking more about Sochi and watching in greater numbers. It’s not the Summer Olympics; it’s better. Ask commentator Stephen Quartermain, who I heard say during the Snowboard Cross, “I’m a big Summer Olympic fan, but this is really one of the greatest Olympic events I’ve ever seen and I can’t wait for South Korea in four years.” The Winter Olympics have a way of getting under your skin, gradually at first, until the thought of athletes simply running around an oval track, or swimming end-to-end in a large pool, all in perfect warm weather, seems kind of quaint.

I just hope there are kids out there now who’ll start somersaulting into pools, swap their skateboard for a snowboard and push their billy karts a bit faster, imagining they’re Lydia Lassila or Torah Bright, or even Astrid Radjenovic.

Then I can’t wait to hear their stories in four or eight years’ time. 

Tony McKay, head of strategy at Team Epic 

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