When the Winter Olympics opening ceremony kicks off later today, if all goes to plan, the world’s media might start to turn its attention from gay rights and security issues, stray dogs and terrible hotels, to the actual sport. How you feel about this depends, mainly, on where you were brought up.
If you're from Scandinavia, the Nordics or Canada, or anywhere with real mountains, real snow and real winters, you might start thinking about the intricacies of slopestyle and who’s nailing the short-track speed-skating this year. It’s in the blood. A new baby in Finland begins life with a slap on the bottom from the midwife before being strapped into a pair of cross-country skis.
But if, like me, you’re from a country that only manages a bit of sleet once a year, or you’re from a place that’s beach-happy, ice-challenged and decidedly hot, the idea of snow-based sport is all a bit strange. “Real” sport involves pounding on asphalt or burly men attempting to bring each other down on grass pitches. Sliding down a slope on a pair of planks to the sound of cowbells? That’s just fun.
By the time the games are over, though, it’ll be a whole different story. The Sochi Olympics are getting more TV coverage in the UK than any winter games before it – 650 hours on the BBC – so there’s little option of ignoring it. Instead, I predict that the habitually blasé British audience will end up being completely and hopelessly sucked in. The Olympics, whether winter or summer, has a habit of doing that, with its tales of bravery, displays of skill and its extraordinary heroes – and the winter Olympics in particular has a fine history of very unlikely heroes indeed.
The Calgary games of 1988 introduced us, unforgettably, to Eddie “the Eagle” Edwards, Britain’s first-ever Olympic ski-jumper. Self-funded, with boots that didn’t fit and terrible eyesight, he often slept in his car during his qualifying rounds because he couldn’t afford a hotel room. He came last in both his events but will always be a star.
It was Calgary too where the Jamaican bobsleigh team, the subjects of the film Cool Runnings, became national heroes. They crashed out spectacularly but they had never set foot on ice until six months before the games.
Among those waiting on the starting line this year is the 55-year-old founder of the one-man Mexican Ski Federation, who is the son of minor royals and likes to ski in a sort of mariachi suit. There’s the 44-year-old Sherpa from Nepal who finished 94th in the 2006 Turin games but still competes because he likes to spread the Olympic spirit back home. The Jamaican bobsleighers are back too, having been on a public-funding drive to raise €45,000 to compete in Sochi.
I may not have been on a ski slope in my life but, like everyone, I do love an underdog – and there’s even a chance, I’m told, of some British medals. So here’s to the Winter Olympics. Bring on the luge, the curling and the skeleton (whatever that is) and let those cowbells ring.
Louise Banbury is Monocle's chief sub editor.