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Sunday, 28 February 2010

Olympic fun and games.



Long before it became fashionable I have been leading the life of a vampire, at least in terms of the hours I keep and my reluctance to venture out into broad daylight. Left to my own devices, I am very much a night owl. As a result over the past fortnight I have found myself going to bed just before dawn as I have become caught up in watching live broadcasts of the Winter Olympics from Vancouver. I have a competitive streak in me and have always endeavoured to maintain a certain level of fitness but I could never have aspired to Olympian standards. I have been fascinated by the men and women taking part in the ski jump and the freestyle aerial skiing. It must take nerves of steel not to panic mid-air. I had a genuine fear of slipping on icy pavements during the recent cold spell. The thought of smashing to the ground from a great height with a giant pair of planks fixed to my feet does not appeal to me in the slightest. Cross country skiing is the only winter Olympics sport I would be happy to participate in because if I slipped I would land on soft snow and not sheer ice.

One of the many fascinating snippets of information I have learned from Vancouver is that a bobsleigh is steered by a driver. I had assumed that the team members simply hopped in, hunkered down and just hoped for the best as their vehicle careered along the course. Seeing scenes of overturning bobsleighs, in one instance jettisoning  a female contestant on to the course and sending her hapless team member spinning inside the out of control  vehicle was literally breath-taking. Fortunately neither women was hurt although it ended their dreams of an Olympic medal in the games.  

Prior to the Vancouver Olympics, my interest in winter Olympic sports as a viewer was generally limited to ice-skating, alpine skiing and the ski jump. Somewhere I still have a medal from Livigno after I came first in a slalom race against an international field of competitors. The video of the race seems to show me skiing in slow motion though it is in real-time and the medal is made of slate rather than gold. But in extenuation, I had only been skiing for just under a fortnight when I hit my personal best. Given time and the right training it could surely have been me up there on the Olympic podium.   
Every year, as part of my modern languages course, I write an essay and present an illustrated talk in Finnish on a subject of my choice. Two years ago it was on the Olympics. Like my blog, I always choose a subject I can flit around like a brimstone butterfly, passing swiftly from one topic to the next, whilst maintaining the central theme. It also helps if I can give it a distinctly Finnish slant. In terms of medals, the Finnish athlete Paarvo Nurmi won the greatest number of Olympic medals ever for Track and Field events. Nurmi, along jointly with Larissa Latynina, Mark Spitz and Carl Lewis, holds the highest number of gold medals ever awarded to an Olympian in the 20th century. There is every reason to believe his haul might have been greater still if shenanigans on the part of Swedish officials had not prevented him from being able to compete in the 1932 summer Olympics in Los Angeles, an act which did little to strengthen Finnish-Swedish ties for some while afterwards.

Despite my owlish proclivities, I can get up early when the need arises such as my recent trip to Broadcasting House for my "Saturday Live" interview. There was a time when I used to be in my London offices by 7.30am. Prior to that, I would wake up at 4am on a Monday morning in order to get to my desk in County Durham by 9.30am, which involved a train and taxi journey of over 240 miles. One day, whilst I was being driven to my office from Durham railway station, the taxi driver related the moving tale of a young woman who had once been a fare in a colleague’s car. It seems she had been on the verge of relocating to the area when her company was taken over by new owners. On Christmas Eve she heard the disquieting rumour that her relocation had been cancelled, despite the fact that she had been obliged to sign a legally binding contract requiring her to have bought a property in the vicinity by January of the following year. Her colleagues, who did not believe the rumour, advised her to speak to her line manager. She was stunned when the latter breezily confirmed the rumour, merely expressing mild annoyance that HR, based over 200 miles away, had not handled the issue more sensitively. He advised her to contact Personnel but they alas were not answering their phones. The unfortunate woman then had to travel all the way back to London, where she was kept in a dreadful state of suspense over the entire Christmas period, not knowing whether she would still have a job by the end of it.  I listened to this modern morality tale, which would have made Ebenezer Scrooge blush at the heartlessness of her employers, completely enthralled. I realised that my personal story had become part of the folk-lore of the local taxi drivers. Who needs an Olympic gold medal if you are already a legend in your own taxi-ride?

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