GIVING THE COLD SHOULDER

FIREWORKS light up the Olympic rings at the opening ceremony of the 2006 Winter Games in Turin.-AP

It's not easy to get involved with sports where most of the time you can't tell Franz from Fredrik behind those hats, goggles, gloves and sweaters. This is the anonymous Games, writes Rohit Brijnath.

We're trying not to be snooty, to ease up on being patronising, to abandon all those jokes about the only ice we need is to cool down our Glenlivets. But, damn, it's not easy to get involved with the Winter Olympics when you can get frostbite watching overweight dudes polishing ice with a hogs hair brush and calling it a sport (curling).

The first problem about the Winter Olympics, albeit a minor one, is that we simply don't care about it. After all, it's hard for a Games to be representative when half the world doesn't show up to the party. With 47 teams from Europe and 38 from everywhere else, it's fair to say one continent has the advantage here.

The Athens Summer Games had over 200 nations; Turin this week has 85. Of course, it's a trifle difficult to put together a biathlon team in many countries when you need to set up a complicated search expedition just to find snow. So when someone from outside the freezing fraternity actually shows up at the Winter Games everyone gets so excited that they make an entire movie about it (Cool Runnings, about the Jamaican bobsled team). For most of us, anyway, everything we needed to know about bobsled runs is found in a James Bond movie (For Your Eyes Only) where, forget a sled, he did it on skis, chased by a motorcycle. This, you have to think, is hard to beat. Furthermore, it's not easy to get involved with sports where most of the time you can't tell Franz from Fredrik behind those hats, goggles, gloves and sweaters. This is the anonymous Games. Really. Last time, an Aussie, who had never been heard of even in parts of Australia, won a speedskating race even though he was coming last because everyone else in front of him fell down!

The second problem with the Winter Games, a small one as well, is that Summer country bumpkins simply can't understand it. You go to Turin and hang out with fellows called Ingemar and Klaus and you don't have a clue what they're talking about. You need Kevlar-reinforced vests when ice-skating. Huh. We thought this was a non-contact sport. The moment you discover we use spatulas to cook and they compete on them (the forward part of the ski), it's all downhill from there. Something has to be wrong with a sport like skiing when one of the things to be taken into account is a "flush". If I told you it refers to a gate pattern with three to four closed gates during the slalom would you be a better person?

Everywhere you're snowed under terminology, which is foreign to you. No, the half-pipe is not an instrument used by college chaps to smoke through, it's a snowboarding event. No, the Triple Salchow is not some potent Polish cocktail, it's an ice-skating move. Sure you understand why rebel snowboarders, one colourfully called The Flying Tomato, might want to run over a mogul, till you figure the word doesn't mean tycoon but a bump in the snow.

Nothing makes sense. In the luge, fellows lie down on a sled and go screaming feet-first around a sort of half tunnel of ice, which clearly is a prissy past-time according to the skeleton chaps, who do the same thing, but lie on their stomachs and go head first. We have only thing to say: chill, dudes.

It's okay not to figure out figure skating because no one can. This is the Winter Games' equivalent to boxing, where part of the artistry is to get a judge on your side. Last Olympics, two pairs of skaters got the gold medal because a judge was apparently "pressured" to vote for one team. The now-banned judge reportedly said this year that she was proud of what she did because it forced the sport to change the judging process. Now even she can't understand it.

Still, it's not that we haven't learnt anything from the Winter Games. There's the Crowbar Routine, apparently perfected by associates of figure skater Tonya Harding, who decided one way to beat her opponent Nancy Kerrigan was ... well, to beat her on the knee.

There's the Miller Effect, which if you think sounds as if it involves alcohol, you're right. This month, American skier Bode Miller admitted that he sometimes turned up for races under the influence of alcohol which caused a major kerfuffle but made complete sense to us.

For instance, anyone contemplating a ski jump, which involves hurtling down a ski ramp faster than nature had in mind, and then flying a hundred metres through the air in a position that alarmingly looks head first, would probably first necessitate the digestion of half a bottle of said Glenlivet.

Of course, all said and done I will be watching these Games if nothing else because one more one-day cricket match could put me into a coma. Figure skating at its finest is a mix of ballet and gymnastics, even if there is something unreal about those pasted-on smiles. Downhill skiers have a muscular grace to them and are sublime studies in balance. The rest I'll leave to Ernst and Helmut to enjoy.

Who knows maybe another Eric Heiden will appear, win five speed skating golds and actually capture half the world's imagination. I remember Heiden, and not just because of his thighs, which measured 27 inches, which in 1980 was actually my waistline. No, what I remember is that Heiden quit after the Games, uncomfortable with all the media attention that followed him. Later he said: "I really liked it best when I was nobody." He should have moved to Chennai.