Alan Hubbard

The Winter Olympics will soon be upon us but I am afraid the prospect leaves me as cold as the competitors will be in Beijing.

I have never quite seen the point of this sporting snowfest, mainly because half the world have little or no chance of winning a medal or even taking part. For many nations it is a no-snow go area and while what largely are circus tricks on skis or skates do provide a degree of entertainment, for me they are not of Olympian stature.

At least the Summer Games are a level playing field for most of the world, incorporating sports which most have the facilities to train and play, not interested in slipping and sliding on snow and ice. No objection at all to these wintry pursuits holding their own individual championships, or even a quadrennial get together, but should the Olympics label be attached to them?

Leaving aside the political aspects of whether or not the event should be held in a nation so bereft of the principles of human rights, I doubt whether they will give more than a cursory glance at the TV screen in many countries in Africa and most parts of Asia. Not to mention the Caribbean and the many other hotspots which bask in year-round sunshine.

You will guess that I am not a skier. I have tried it more than once and hated every moment, until I finally stuck my skis upright in the snow and trudged back to base with every asset frozen to defrost for a noggin or two of warming gluhwein.

What I remember most about the experience is an Austrian instructor constantly bellowing at me. "Snowplough position, snowplough position!" Until then I had imagined it was something from the Kama Sutra.

We learn that in Beijing and its environs the ski slopes will be encrusted with artificial snow. In that case the International Olympic Committee might just as well stage them in the tropics (does artificial snow melt in the sun, I wonder?)

My objection to the Winter Olympics is also coloured by the fact that I have covered a fistful of them. Enjoyable is not a word I would associate with them, although Lillehammer wasn’t too bad.

Indeed I would say that one of them, those in Lake Placid, in 1980 was the worst journalistic assignment of my career.

Usually, covering events in the United States is an absolute joy, so professionally are they organised. Lake Placid was an unforgettable exception, a very long way from the Super Bowl or big fight in Madison Square Garden or Las Vegas. I recall they were run by a local clergyman, the Reverend Bernard who seemed to think he was organising a village fete.

It was small town America at its worst. These Games marked the second time the tiny upstate New York resort hosted the Winter Olympics. But in the age of mass TV coverage and increasing numbers of spectators Lake Placid was ill-equipped to handle the demands of a modern mega event.

The Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics are due to begin in just over a fortnight's time, but our columnist argues that a lot of nations will not be particularly interested in proceedings ©Getty Images
The Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics are due to begin in just over a fortnight's time, but our columnist argues that a lot of nations will not be particularly interested in proceedings ©Getty Images

Transportation was wholly inadequate - the few buses we saw usually whizzed by without stopping leaving us - and sometimes even competitors - shivering knee deep in snow often up to 40° below.

Athletes complained about confinement in cramped cell-like accommodation with bars instead of windows in an Olympic Village encased in barbed wire and originally designed for future use as a prison housing notorious Mafia inmates.

While most of the sports facilities were good they were widely scattered throughout the area making it difficult for spectators to view the events. Lake Placid also heralded the introduction of artificial snow.

Most of the disgruntled media were housed in an establishment, a low grade youth hostel with many of the rooms windowless. I recall the late John Hennessey, then sports editor of the London Times, sitting head in hands, in his-tiny, airless room and wailing: "I am representing one of the most prestigious newspapers in the world. What on earth am I doing in a hellhole like this?"

The Media Centre was an ill-equipped boys private school house in which the toilet cubicles had no doors. Not an ideal way to spend a penny. Obviously Rev Fell, the parsimonious parson did not want to spend too many of them, especially on the media.

On top of all this my padded ski jacket burst, spraying duck feathers all over my fellow scribes in the pressroom.

Henceforth I was dubbed "the man with the exploding jacket". So you can see why I was not a happy bunny and wished I had given these Winter Olympics the cold shoulder.

To be fair the Winter Olympics have given us some of sport’s most magical moments. Here in Britain we still savour the captivating symmetry of ice dancers Torvill and Dean and their golden Bolero, and the graceful balletic artistry on ice of John Curry. And who can forget Eddie the Eagle? Much as some snooty Olympic aficionados would like us to.

Even Lake Placid had its upside with some remarkable performances, not least from the US ice hockey team, composed mainly of American college boys who thrashed the mighty Soviet Union in a match immortalised as "the miracle on ice."

We shall see what Beijing brings. Maybe this time Russia and Ukraine might settle their differences with an artificial snowball fight. How long before throwing frozen ice cream at each other becomes an Olympic event? Practically everything else has.

I have no doubt that those who are interested in the upcoming Winter Games will find them eminently watchable. Just don’t call them the Olympics.

In any case who knows whether global warming will eliminate the need for winter sports in years to come.