Part roller derby, part ballet, the lure of the Winter Games

Canadians take the Winter Olympics more seriously than the Summer Games. The rest of the world, not so much. That's their problem, Joe Schlesinger writes, they are missing out on a very special kind of drama.

Faster, higher, stronger is all good, but winter sport is where the real drama lives

Canada's Charles Hamelin (R) and Eduardo Alvarez of the U.S. fall during the men's 1,000 metres short track speed skating quarter-finals. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

As much as Canadians have been thrilled by the Sochi Olympic Games, people in much of the rest of the world just yawned.

You can't really blame them. To hundreds of millions, ice is just something they put in their drinks to beat the heat.

That leaves the Winter Games playing a distant second fiddle to what are considered the real Olympics, the ones that take place in the summer.

That's the world's loss because the Winter Games can be a lot more thrilling than anything you'll see at the summer Olympics.

The action is much faster, complex, artistic and even romantic. It is also more dangerous, and at times deadly.

Let's start with speed. The fastest action at the Summer Games is in bike racing. The top speed: 70 km an hour.

In the Winter's luge race it's double that. Bobsleds go even faster with runs of 150 km per hour.

Downhill skiers are the fastest. For men the record is 251 km an hour. The women's record is only eight kilometres less. 

Think what would happen if you crashed your car, even with all its modern safety equipment, at those speeds.

Aerial acrobatics

Then there are the thrills of snowboarding and freestyle skiing events like the halfpipe, slopestyle and moguls that send competitors swirling spectacularly through the air and landing hard on the ice-packed often angled course.

The breakneck speeds make these winter sports more dangerous, particularly, it seems, for women who must contend with courses largely designed for men.

In the first dozen days of the completion, nearly three quarters of the athletes forced out by falls were women.

Over the 90-year history of the Winter Games, four athletes, all men, were killed in accidents.

Two of them were luge racers, the most recent being Nodar Kumaritashvili of Georgia who crashed in a practice run at the Vancouver Games in 2010.Two skiers were also killed in crashes in other Olympics.

In the Summer Games by contrast, only two athletes have ever died in action. A runner succumbed to dehydration and a cyclist died of a heat stroke.

This year, a Russian skier, Maria Komissarova, narrowly escaped death when she fell in a jump and fractured her spine. Her life was saved when she was transported to Germany for surgery. She remains in grave but stable condition.

Danger is an attraction

Komissarova was hardly the only one to fall or be injured. There were slips, spills, crashes and wipeouts on the ski slopes, ice rinks and in events such as the biathlon, the shoot-as-you-ski cross-country.

The pleasure of Olympic thrills, though, would seem to overcome the perils for competitors and audiences alike. Danger, it seems, is an attraction.

  Canada's Chloe Dufour Lapointe reacts during the women's freestyle skiing moguls qualification round at the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games in Rosa Khutor February 6, 2014. (Dylan Martinez/Reuters)

The Summer Games are all about numbers, about who can run a little faster, jump a little higher — a split-second here, a millimetre there.

That's great, and the Winter Games, too, have much the same scoring in events such as speed skating.

But they also have a lot more. Programs such as snowboarding, freestyle skiing or figure skating pose a derring-do challenge to the imagination.

It's no longer just about getting there, but about how you do it on the way.

Just take a look at the Canadians who defied gravity to strut their stuff.

The Dufour-Lapointe sisters, Justine and Chloe, who took the two top spots in mogul skiing, a race in which the competitors literally change the bumpy snowy landscape with tricky twists and turns of their skis.

And their counterparts who took gold and silver in the men's race, Alexandre Bilodeau and Mikael Kingsbury.

Or turn to that epitome of grace, ice dancing, as performed by Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir. Never mind that they won silver, not gold. They demonstrated — by their grace both on and off the ice — what makes the Winter Olympics such a great show.

Virtue and Moir floated around the rink seemingly freed them from the force of gravity. This was coupled with the risk-taking of Moir hoisting Virtue high over his head and swirling her around as she lay just inches off the hard, ice surface.

At heart, though, theirs was not a display of athleticism so much as it was a romance on ice.

The Summer Games may have their thrills. But they are no match for what we've seen at Sochi.

The Winter Olympics really are something special, combining as they do the elements of a rollicking roller derby with the poetry and elegance of ballet.

Over to you, Rio de Janeiro, in the summer of 2016. You have a lot to shoot for.

About the Author

Joe Schlesinger

Foreign Correspondent Emeritus

Joe Schlesinger was a foreign correspondent for CBC for 28 years, covering natural disasters, political upheavals and conflicts from Vietnam to the Persian Gulf. In 2009, the Canadian Journalism Foundation honoured Schlesinger for his body of work.


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