ARMCHAIR OLYMPICS!

I’m currently watching the Winter Olympics from my lounge room armchair. I actually have been to a Winter Olympics – but I confess, I did not stray far from an armchair and television because of frightening men with guns, bitter cold, and the sight of injured skiers on the slopes in a practice run!

I watch the downhill ski jumping practice at the Innsbruck Games.

It was the 1976 Winter Olympic Games in Innsbruck, and I was in Europe, just beginning a year’s travel away from Australia with my backpack and tent.

It was also the first Olympics after the Munich 1972 summer games, where twelve people were massacred by terrorists. So I was shocked to see the Innsbruck slopes packed with gun toting security and police. It was a rude awakening for this naive little Aussie. Back home most police still used the baton, and openly exposed guns were not seen.

Then, as I watched, one of the Olympic skiers crashed and had to be carted off on a stretcher. Was this really fun?

To top it off, I was freezing. It was snowing, overcast and I had never been so cold in my life! So between being frightened of pistol packing police, shocked at competitors falling from great heights to injury, and trying to endure bone chilling cold – I made the decision to abandon the Games and watch them on television back at the Youth Hostel – in an armchair.

I retreated to the Innsbruck Youth Hostel to watch the Olympics on TV!

The Olympics are one of those times where you might find yourself pulling out all those very tenuous links one might have to Olympic sports.

Did I tell you one of my sons once almost beat an Olympic gold medal sprint swimmer in the pool? True. The future medalist and he were only six years old at the time, and to qualify for the Grade 1 school swimming carnival’s 50 metres event, you simply needed to be able to swim 50 metres overarm. Not many six year olds can do that competently.

So half way down the pool, my son was in first place. I was so excited. And then his swimming cap slipped off. I roared from the sidelines – ‘Swim on, swim on’! But he stopped, calmly retrieved the cap as he treaded water, and put it on as the rest of the field passed him by. The Olympian ‘to be’ won – the beginning of a great professional swimming career.

That particular son, however, qualifies me as ‘a skier’s mum’. Yes, another of my tenuous links to winter Olympic sports. Like most Australians, I know very little about such sports. Though we Aussies are pretty good at becoming armchair experts very quickly. A friend says her husband has morphed into an expert on Curling this week. Which, she says, is a bit rich for a man who rarely picks up a broom to sweep at home!

In Western Australia, where I live, there are no ski fields. Every few years, one small mountain – actually a Bluff – gets a weeny bit of snow that makes the news headlines. You can reach the snow if you are willing to climb the Bluff and might be rewarded with enough snow to build a very tiny snowman. Or it might have melted by the time you summit.

A sprinkling of snow appears here every few years in WA

We do have one West Australian contestant in these Olympics – bobsleigh brakeman Kiara Reddingius. She saw snow for the first time three months ago! She comes from the Western Australian northern goldfields where it was 41 degrees Celsius last week. Local media say her story has ‘shades of the hit ’90’s movie Cool Runnings’.

So, you can understand that it was a bit of a surprise when my Western Australian born and raised son asked if his Dad and I could take him to a ski field during the winter University school holidays! Up until this point my son had never shown much liking for sport participation. He was probably traumatised by his loss in that swimming race! But he took to skiing like a duck to water after a few lessons at a field we took him to over in New Zealand and now loves hitting the slopes internationally. So there you go – skier’s mum!

One of my son’s photos skiing pre pandemic in Italy

I favour the figure skating at the Olympics. It’s so beautiful to watch, and because I regularly read Japanese newspapers on line, I have long been familiar with their favourite son, Yuzuru Hanyu and his competitive relationship with the American skater Nathan Chen. I also, in the last few years, have discovered some of the up and coming Japanese and Korean skaters. So there’s an ice shaving of knowledge there.

My husband says my enthusiastic unqualified comments watching the Olympics on TV this week should land me a spot on one of those ‘we are watching the tv’ shows – in Australia, Googlebox. When the Koreans got turfed from the speed skating race in a decision which favoured the Chinese, this week – I, who knows diddly squat about speed skating, was loudly protesting. As if they could hear me through the TV! I was in good and very cool company though. I note that Kpop’s BTS leader RM also gave the decision a thumbs down. I don’t know how much RM knows about speed skating, but he probably qualifies for a comment more than me as he is Korean – which I’m not.

Our first Aussie Gold Medal was won in speed skating, so I watch that too. The medal was famously won by Steven Bradbury in 2002, who came from the back of the pack to take the medal when everyone else in the race fell over in a corner pile-up! He is an Australian folk hero these days, and is commentating at these 2022 Olympics. Australians now have a common term – ‘Doing a’ Bradbury’ meaning unexpected or unusual success. Australians love the underdog winning through! Probably that’s why we keep tackling the Winter Olympics.

Only three Australian States have ski fields and their season is very short. Australia has competed in the Winter Olympics since 1936, but for a long time our sports administrators thought investment in winter sports was useless. By the 1990’s, things began to change with some government funding and dedicated young competitors who spend most of their time out of Australia for training and competition. As I write this, we have won just 17 medals since 1936 – only six of them gold. Our latest this week! I’m optimistic – we have more than a week to go with a few good prospects! Definitely a snowball’s chance in hell.

Which brings me to my final tenuous link to winter olympic sports. Back in the early 1970’s when I was a very young broadcast Journalist, I was assigned to report on the Tasmanian ski championships for ABC TV and Radio. I had never heard of a ski championship in my Island State before. I didn’t even know we could ski in Tasmania. I had one day’s notice to prepare, and two vital questions on my mind. Where was a ski field in Tasmania? And what would I wear!

The Tasmanian ski fields then were very basic, run by small groups of amateur enthusiasts, mainly migrants from countries with real ski fields. And they were difficult to reach.

I was heading to Mount Field, about 80 kilometres from the State capital Hobart. A ski club was formed there in the 1920’s and a ski hut built in 1926. It took a whole day of track walking to reach the ski slopes from a road back then. It was still a long trek up the mountain, through snow, from the main carpark to reach the field when I was sent to cover the State Championships. Knee high snow for my camera crew. In my case – thigh deep. I’m only 5 foot 2!

I was not equipped for it! My Dad, an Englishman from Cumbria near the Scottish border, had some experience of cold. But not of ski fields. “Layer up,” he advised. “That’s what you need to do.” Quite right. But what to layer up with? Dad dragged up every jumper, t shirt, coat and cardigan – even a raincoat – that might be a candidate from the family wardrobes. Mum lent me a ‘spencer’, a thin underwear top made of breathable cotton – perhaps a germ of an idea for today’s thermal underwear. Not really suited as a snow undergarment though. The family collection of beanies went onto my head. Multiple gloves went onto my tiny hands. Scarves of every colour and description galore around my throat. Mountains of socks covered my feet, squeezed into bushwalking boots. Great for trekking, not so great for trudging though deep snow!

My tiny 47 kilo frame looked like mini Michelin man! You couldn’t tell if I was a man or woman under the avalanche of clothes. I might have been mistaken too for a Salvation Army second hand clothes bin model – wearing everything they had at once!

Me – far left – reporting with an ABC TV crew in Tasmania early 1970’s

I really don’t know how I made it up that mountain to the ski field. I repeatedly sunk deep into the snow, pulled out to safety by my camera crew. It was entirely possible that the Ski Championships might have been knocked off the news headlines with ‘Search for reporter lost in ski field – last sight of her was a hand, a notebook and pen sticking out of the snow’. When skiing officials at the championships saw me, they laughed their heads off at my attire and dragged me into a hut to change. Proper skiing clothes were produced – too big for me, but much better than what I was wearing.

I got the job done – officially reporting in the middle of the Championship action on the ski slopes for ABC TV and Radio. My knowledge coming from the local skiers who fed me with the appropriate information. So I can claim some expertise, even if the whole day is a snow storm blur in my memory. If anyone challenges my right to comment on the current Olympics from my armchair – I’ll remind them that I am a seasoned winter sports commentator. After that harrowing day at Mount Field, I deserve at least that recognition.

Still coming up next week on my blog: Another South Island New Zealand story – HOT SMOKING DELIGHT IN NZ.

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