Wall-to-wall Olympics in my house at the moment. Lovin’ every minute.
Last night, Lizzie Yarnold, the British winner of this past season’s Skeleton World Cup (that’s like winning the Premier League for you football fans – it indicates consistency) managed to win an Olympic Gold Medal. Caps there for a wonderful achievement. Well done! Woo-hoo!
So, let’s talk about the ‘sport’ of skeleton. That’s an odd name for a sport which used to be called tobogganing. And I’m sure you noticed my use of the inverted commas around the word ‘sport.’ There they are again. Whoops. But is skeleton really a sport? I concede the point that it takes courage. 80mph with your chin a few centimetres above the ice does take some nerve. But a sport? Hmm. Both darts and snooker have been similarly questioned, due to their lack of physical prowess. Yet they both fulfil one of the absolute requirements for sports. They demand an enormous amount of skill. Darts players may be able to balance their pint on their bellies while standing but have you tried hitting treble twenty? It’s not easy. And snooker, well, I give up. So I think we can agree they’re both sports. But sliding sports, well, they seem to be closer to a theme park ride. Skeleton is the only sport where an overweight catering staff member can arrive bearing hot drinks, slip, land on the tray he’s been using for said hot drinks, slide down the course and win a gold medal. Okay, okay, I’m being facetious but let’s analyse this a little more closely.
Last night, Amy Williams, the British skeleton Olympic champion from four years ago (we’re rather good at sliding in the U.K.) found herself justifying her sport. That’s never a good sign. One of the other commentators was just about to mention the forbidden word, ‘tea-tray,’ only to be tutted by Williams, who then went on to describe why skeleton should be considered a sport. One of the features of her little speech was the repeated use of the word ‘technical.’ It’s never a good sign when we’re told that a sport is technical. It sound so very defensive and that’s not good. One of the things about sport is that the spectators should be able to see right in front of their eyes what’s required to win. The reality is that no one outside skeleton has a clue what makes a good competitor. Oh we can see the sprint at the top. That one’s easy. But after that, we’re lost. In every other sport, we can see what marks out a champion. See Tiger holing that putt? Every golfer can relate. Roger volleying cross-court? It’s fantastic and no, I wouldn’t be able to do that but I instinctively know what it takes. Skeleton? Whoosh, gold medal. What happened there?
Of course the primary reason why we’re in the dark is that no one does skeleton except for lycra-wearing sportsmen and women at the Olympics. I know the World Cup counts but most people don’t watch until the Olympics. Skeleton is a minority sport among minority sports. Hardly anyone participates. That’s perhaps the most damning indictment of them all. Shouldn’t an Olympic sport be one that people actually participate in? Cross-country skiing is Norway’s national sport. Archery is huge in South Korea. They might be minority sports to us but in some countries, half the population has a go. Skeleton? It’s not big anywhere that I know of. That’s a bad sign.
So what about this technical side? What is technical about skeleton? According to Amy Williams, it primarily involves steering. Okay. How’s that done? With the shoulders, hips and feet. Other sports that rely on steering involve cars or motorbikes. We admire Sebastian Vettel and Valentino Rossi because they can really handle their machines. But you might have noticed a vast difference between skeleton and say, Monza. Yup. Dozens of competitors all trying to overtake you at eye-watering speeds. Now, that takes some skill. But skeleton? No overtaking. Sure, you need to push down with the shoulder there, drag your toe a little there, but come on, it’s hardly the same as overtaking a competitor at 200mph and hitting the brakes as late as you can.
What we want from Olympic sport is great competition performed by sportsmen and women who combine peak physical conditioning with extraordinary skill. It should be very hard to win a gold medal. You should be in top physical condition and you should be very talented in your chosen discipline. Steering with the shoulder, touching the toe down, leaning left or right, I’m afraid, isn’t really enough skill to qualify for the designation ‘sport.’ The sprint at the beginning? Ho-hum. Maybe these athletes could try the 100m.
As for Lizzie Yarnold, well done! You won a gold medal. Excellent! You can hang it up above the mantelpiece. You’ll dine out on your Olympic story for years to come. Good for you. I mean that. Really. You’ll forgive me, however, if I have my suspicions. I can just see you winking at Amy Williams as you leave the sliding centre together and whispering, ‘Isn’t it great? They still think it’s a sport. Don’t you dare tell ‘em we have to pay a tenner for every ride. Tea-tray rental extra!’