What Does It Take To Become A Winter Athlete?
Illustration by Ms Karin Kellner
Could you make it as an Olympic competitor? Read on to find out.
The Winter Olympics, which begin in PyeongChang in South Korea on 9 February, are the quadrennial celebration of the many strange and dangerous things you can do when water freezes. Fifteen sporting disciplines – the majority a variation on the practice of travelling very fast downhill on pieces of wood – will involve competitors from more than 90 countries launching themselves from great heights, attempting to pull off improbable feats on ice, and crossing great tracts of snowy waste.
There will be those who regard winter as nothing more than an opportunity to buy a new jacket and some chunky knitwear. But for others – those who yearn for the raw thrill of competing in sub-zero temperatures – the 23rd Winter Olympics will be a chance to get acquainted with a new cast of heroes.
Who those heroes are, and how they come to be, will be revealed in due course. Until then, we’ve tried to imagine what makes winter athletes do the ridiculous things they do.
You were a loner as a child. You feared death, yet were strangely drawn to it. Rather than playing with other children of your age, you climbed trees because you liked to be able to look down on the world. Once, you found a bird’s nest and stole an egg, incubating it until it hatched. That wrinkled, bulbous-eyed chick was your universe. You cared for it, fed it and tucked it in your dressing gown pocket while watching YouTube clips of ridiculous men in homemade flying contraptions who launched themselves from seaside piers before plunging into the waves below. Then came the moment your friend had to be set free. Nudging it gently forwards onto the sill of your bedroom window, you watched in awe as it opened its delicate, fledgling wings only for your heart to split as it plummeted to its death, bouncing off the barbecue before hitting the patio. Standing alone at the top of a ski-jumping slope temporarily erases that painful memory. It also makes you feel closer to God – and the ghost of your feathered friend.
Communication has always been an issue for you. As an infant, you preferred hitting or punching to formulating sentences. In school, you once tried to impress a girl by head-butting a locker until your bottom teeth fell out. As a college student, you were hospitalised after your jaw locked around the mouth of a pint glass during a hands-free drinking contest. Despite your desire to find a girl and settle down, you feel more comfortable in the company of men, especially those who broadcast their affection through practical jokes or random tests of strength. Your best friend’s wife still refuses to talk to you after you shaved a strip down the middle of his head the night before their wedding, while the skin discolouration on your upper thighs is a reminder of how he exacted revenge by filling your jock-strap with Tabasco sauce. Your idea of humour is ribald puns involving the word “puck”, which explains the series of DIY tattoos on your calves.
Your formative years were largely spent in fancy dress, with your favourite costume being that of a Queen’s Guardsman, complete with miniature felt busby. In your pre-school years, any and every opportunity was taken to be photographed on a horse, saluting at the camera. This interest in costume continued until you were ostracised by your peers for repeatedly turning up at school wearing a Napoleonic bicorn hat. Team sports were never your thing, and it was not until you enrolled in a freeform street jazz class that you heard your calling. You dreamed of appearing in musical theatre, but being tone-deaf proved to be a major disadvantage. It was while doing a Saturday job on the skate hire desk at the local ice rink that you met a young Ukrainian couple named Vladyslav and Irina, former junior figure skating champions in their homeland. A friendship blossomed. They taught you the salchow, lutz and axel jumps, and shared your love of Mr Chris de Burgh. You ran off with Irina. Vladyslav went home. You’ve never looked back.
To the outside world, you appear to be the embodiment of calm, but this steely, unblinking exterior conceals a deep longing to feel helplessly out of control. You have often thought about what it was that drew you to a sport that requires you to lie on a tray and hurtle face-first down a corkscrewing, mile-long track that’s been artificially refrigerated to produce speeds of up to 80mph and sufficient g-force to induce blackouts. Sometimes your mind drifts back to early childhood when your father swung you round and round by the arms, and that time he accidentally let go and you flew over the fence into next door’s garden. Or the time he took the stabilisers off your bicycle and whispered in your ear before letting you go and laughing uncontrollably as you careered down a 1:4 hill into an elderly dog walker. You try not to dwell on these experiences when the light turns green at the top of the track.
Your mother knew there was something different about you when she found you on all-fours in her bedroom, sniffing her shoes before lining them up with a precision that seemed unusual for an 11-year-old boy. Your meticulous nature and obsession with cleanliness had its downsides, such as your habit of using a handheld car vacuum to remove dandruff from the shoulders of house guests, and your insistence on going in to polish all surfaces in the bathroom immediately after anyone had used it. Your parents agreed that you needed an outlet, and found one in a sport that requires its protagonists to slide a stone to a target across 150ft of polished ice, which is swept furiously with specially adapted Vileda mops. Now, you and your three teammates form a mutual support group, sharing complex theories on asymmetric friction melting while desperately trying not to think about the alignment of the towels in the bathroom.