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Winter Olympics: Full of glorious twizzles but devoid of diversity


Mike Wills is a journalist and talk show host.

The five Olympic rings are meant to represent the five continents, yet two of those continents, Africa and South America, have never won a single gold medal between them at the Winter Olympics since this chilly circus began in Chamonix in 1924.

‘He could have had a bobble on that twizzle.”

It was only 10 minutes into my 2022 Winter Olympic Games TV viewing and the team rhythm dance skating commentator already had me in stitches with incomprehensible technicalities.

Nothing in the world of sport is, at the same time, so utterly astonishing (especially when the breathtaking 15-year-old Russian skater Kamila Valieva is on the ice) and yet so hard to take seriously as the Winter Olympics.

At a probably under-reported cost of $3.9-billion, the Chinese have built for these Games a set of expensive artificial venues on artificial snow and ice for largely artificial events that are bewildering and inaccessible for most of the planet. Very few of those venues will ever get serious use again.

That same skating commentator drolly referred to one of the pairs performing a “back outside death spiral”, which surely reflects the logical fate of the Winter Olympics.

At this price tag, such glorious idiosyncrasy cannot survive much longer, especially given that, while the Olympic movement drapes itself in global and inclusive language and iconography, this is probably the least diverse major international event of them all – a fact that no amount of hype around the Cool Runnings Jamaican bobsled team can hide.

The five Olympic rings are meant to represent the five continents, yet two of those continents, Africa and South America, have never won a single gold medal between them at the Winter Olympics since this chilly circus began in Chamonix in 1924.

The entire southern hemisphere had only won five golds – all of them Australian – prior to Beijing. (A Kiwi woman added to that tally last week in the snowboard slopestyle event.)

India, with a population of 1.3 billion, has one entrant this time and the grand total of 16 competitors and no medals in history.  

Africa contributes just six athletes from five countries (fewer than a tenth of the continent’s nations). Impoverished Madagascar somewhat delusionally paraded a team of two into the Bird’s Nest Stadium during the opening ceremony.

It turns out both are alpine skiers who are essentially French, and the same European expatriate background applies to Nigeria, Eritrea and Ghana’s lone entrants. The sole Moroccan skier is at least a product of the Atlas Mountains.  

South Africa is not represented in Beijing. We’ve had small teams at six of the eight winter games since readmission, but no one qualified this year, according to the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee, which is so dysfunctional it wouldn’t spot Jean-Claude Killy or Torvill and Dean even if we had them.

At the 2018 games in South Korea, Connor Wilson was our only competitor, having honed his slalom skiing skills at Afriski in northern Lesotho.

I have skied those undaunting slopes and they are to an Olympic course what a putt-putt course is to St Andrews. Wilson, who went to St John’s in Johannesburg, also is, according to Wikipedia, a vet, an accomplished equestrian, a certified rescue scuba diver and a helicopter pilot.

There’s also some deeper, hidden history for SA at the winter games.

Who knew that we sent a team of four figure skaters – Marion Sage, Patricia Eastwood, Gwyn Jones and Marcelle Matthew – to the 1960 games at Squaw Valley in California?

That venue name was offensive to Native Americans and subsequently has been changed to Palisades Tahoe. Our participation was also offensive to many. South Africa was thrown out of the Olympic movement shortly thereafter because of apartheid. I am glad to report that a rare photo of that 1960 team taking part in the opening ceremony confirms that rubbish, unflattering Olympic outfits are not a new phenomenon for SA competitors.

But, for all the winter games’ bias against those of us living in the hotter climes this side of the equator, the very first southern hemisphere gold medal ever was one of the best of all time.

Aussie Steven Bradbury won the men’s short track 1000m speed skating at the Salt Lake City 2002 Winter Olympics in the most extraordinary of circumstances.

The event consists of four rounds, each with four skaters going blade to blade for nine laps around a tight course with no lanes. The top two progress from each round ultimately through to a four-person final.  

Bradbury won his first round. Then he only finished third in his quarterfinal but went through after the reigning world champion ahead of him was subsequently disqualified.

In the semifinal, he was way off the pace when all three of his rivals crashed out, leaving him to cruise into the final, where, knowing he couldn’t win on speed, he adopted the same tactic – hang well back out of trouble and hope for a pile-up. And, sure enough, the skating gods delivered.

Bradbury was 15m behind with only 50m to go when the three frontrunners, jostling for the win on the final bend, all went tumbling out and he skated through to gold.

Bradbury went on to a career of appearing on Dancing with the Stars and Australian Survivor. More importantly, “I am doing a Bradbury” has become a universal excuse for saving your breath and dawdling at the back of any exhaustive race on the grounds of a cunning strategic master plan for victory. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.


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  • mcihmirving says:

    Winter Olympics are surely historically sports from those countries sending athletes. In those countries children start skiing and skating at the age of three. It seems the journalist is making a fuss out of nothing.

  • Michiel Erik Moll says:

    In the South we play rugby and field hockey in winter – maybe we should lobby to have those moved to the Winter Olympics!

  • sl0m0 za says:

    Amazing – the continents that get almost no snow in winter do not feature in winter olympics – I wonder why……..such a stupid article!

  • Gerrit Marais says:

    Seriously? Have you ever questioned the domination of long-distance running by Africa and the Caribbean? Complete hogwash!

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