It was the Dutch ski jumper with the barbershop-quartet moustache winning bronze that first made me understand why these Winter Olympics already feel so liberating. For once in these hyper-partisan times, sport wasn’t about flags or patriotism. Nor was it about the hype and hoopla. It wasn’t even about ridiculous photo-spreads of Joe and Sally Lycra wrapped in red, white, and blue bodysuits in order to sell us some sponsored pro-biotic. There was just the glory of individual achievement. And there was the moustache, of course… When it caught the breeze beneath his snow goggles, Robert Johansson’s moustache trembled in ways sure to excite hipsters everywhere.
Admittedly, this might not mean much to you if you take your sport with giant foam hands and flags draped from bedroom windows but, compared to their more feted summer sibling, the winter games have a refreshing lack of relevance inside the UK. With the exception of the winters of 1684 and 1962-63, we have never been a country blessed with much snow. If there was a sport based around slush, black ice, and treacherously slippy pavements, we might win some gold. As it is, the deep crisp stuff is generally alien to our DNA, meaning the games are less of a headline act; not quite as important as Wimbledon but slightly higher profile than the darts.
That’s not to say that the BBC haven’t gone their usual extra mile on the off chance there’s a Torvill and Dean moment waiting out there on the Korean peninsula. Custom graphics have been ordered and iPlayer is plastered with particularly glam shots of Clare Balding et al dressed in polar gear. The reality, however, is that the coverage is being hosted from studios in downtown Salford. (So, in fairness, perhaps the thermals were necessary…)
Yet the beauty of watching a sporting event in which Great Britain has so few medal chances is that it all stops short of that level of frenzy that usually spoils great sporting occasions. It leaves us with human competition in its purest form. Emotions aren’t tied to any one nation and you can cheer the dexterity of a Chinese figure skater just as easily as you whoop with pleasure as some plucky American pulls off an ambitious 1440.
It also means there seems to be less of the geopolitics going on. America and Russia still duke it out and China, as always, misses the point entirely, thinking that their drone army proves the virtues of statism. Yet it doesn’t so much matter if France and Germany beat us in the medal table. Rather, if feels only right that they do since they have the Alps. Ben Nevis, Snowdon, and Scafell Pike combined are still less than half a Mont Blanc or Matterhorn.
This is a chance to shine for nations who understand the virtues of a polar climate from the inside but it also reveals the deeper truth of the winter games. It speaks about the structures of our nature: that sometimes nature means a lot more than nurture and that nations blessed with snow will do well, whilst nations without end up disappearing over a pine-lined ridge in a tangle of orange netting and ski straps.
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What British presence there is can still be celebrated, just in a different way. In a few sports, we have those teams trying to beat the odds with a bit of lottery funding. We’re told that Elise Christie should win gold but there was already gold (of a kind) in her tears as our hopeful crashed out of the 500m short-track final. It proved, yet again, that we don’t need to ‘win’ in order to win. We have plucky amateurs, representing the country from continental bases, or the ever-resourceful military, applying brute force to the rear end of a flimsy looking sled. And if that doesn’t appeal, there’s always some damn clever invention to blow away the competition with a gust of British ingenuity. This year, apparently, the skinsuits worn by our skeleton team will be giving us an advantage. They are vortex friendly and, hopefully, make the buttock wobble in those slo-mo shots a little more family friendly.
The Winter Olympics are an escape from the way we normally indulge our love of sport. Not having a horse in the race means that every horse can be our horse. One moment we can cheer on an Austrian luge champion. The next we can hurrah seventeen year old Red Gerrard when he clears the men’s freestyle snowboarding course without landing squat on his fashionable saggy and baggy behind.
There are some, of course, who will continue to protest about the cost of the Olympics and the nature of sport in a world where the ability to cheat outstrips our ability to catch cheaters. There are some who point out that North Korea are simply using these games to buy time as they continue to build nukes; that Mike Pence is only there to provoke war with Kim Jong-un and/or America’s LGBTQ community. Those might be pressing issues but not to the true sports fan who stays up to watch Chloe Kim become the ladies’ halfpipe champion or Canadian Mikaël Kingsbury take gold by bouncing across the moguls. This is a strange post-midnight world in which you can admire a Rusty Trombone or a Stalefish; where hitting your K-point is far less filthy than it sounds; where even Clare Balding is tolerable so long as she’s kept away from talking about fetlocks.
And a week into the games, even curling seems to make sense. In fact, it begins to resemble the Sport of the Gods, leaving you to wonder why it’s not bigger than the English Premiership. That, however, is merely the sleep deprivation talking. There are hours left till dawn and there’s a snowboarder called Shaun White about to hit the half-pipe. No, I’ve not heard of him either but the rest of the world say he’s a little bit special…