Domhnall MacAuley on armchair winter sports

Domhnall MacauleyThe Olympics are imminent. Not 2012, but the Winter Olympics in Vancouver opening in less than three weeks. Coming from a country where rare snowfalls are wet, soggy and turn almost immediately to slush, winter sport usually means rugby in the rain. Much to the amusement of my family, however, I’m a TV snow sports enthusiast- I can bore you with the subtleties of cross country skiing and biathlon, name the unknowns of the ski jumping world and recognise, at a glance, the top alpine skiers in their various disciplines.

Last weekend, the downhill racers skied the Streif in Kitzbuhel, arguably the most dangerous of the ski racing circuit, where the Swiss veteran Didier Cuche snatched victory from an unsung Slovenian. Launching themselves down the Hahnenkamm mountain, clocking 140kph towards the finish, they seem barely in control. It’s the national sport in Austria and, you could hear the collective gasp of 50,000 spectators when one of their favourites Michael Walchhofer, hurtled off the piste and into the side netting- he was unhurt. Injury is ever present, with horrific high velocity crashes. They race on the margin between courage and madness. I salute the great heroes, like the now retired Austrian Hermann Maier; admire the incredible longevity of the veterans like Liechtenstein skier Marco Büchel, now almost 40 years old; am in awe of the bravery of those who return from serious injury to compete at the very top, like Norwegian Aksel Lund Svindal and; gasp at the unpredictable genius of the American Bode Miller.

Some years ago, I listened to some Norwegian colleagues chat over dinner about the merits of their various cross country skiers and biathletes, with the same familiarly that much of the rest of the world talk about football. It opened my eyes to the different styles and techniques, skills of climbing and gliding, and subtleties of such intense endurance sport. But, the Biathlon is the most intriguing. From a physiological perspective, I wonder at how they can ski flat out on an undulating cross country course, sometimes at altitude, and then shoot at a target the size of a golf ball at 50 metres. I watch them as they arrive breathless in the shooting zone, trying to control their breathing and prevent the movement of the barrel of the gun. (Try running up two flights of stairs, hold your arm out straight and see if you can hold your index finger steady). When shooting prone lying on the mat, there is some support but how can they stand absolutely still and control the muscles of their legs after flat out exercise. I have never been on cross country skis nor, have I been on the snow in Norway, but I can name many of the Norwegian athletes and will be watching for their results and, in particular, for the legendary and now 35 year old Ole Einar Bjørndalen.

And bobsleigh? Many years ago, during Henley Royal Regatta, a benefactor put a flyer around the Irish crews asking if any rowers would like to try out for an embryonic bobsleigh team. Some of my friends volunteered and spent time on the winter circuit eventually qualifying for Albertville in 1992 -one of whom competed in both the summer and winter Olympics. Ireland will compete in the Women’s Bobsleigh, Men’s Skeleton, Alpine and cross country skiing in Vancouver. Not bad for a country with no snow – nearly as unexpected as the Jamaicans.

Is there a medical angle? Yes, I am interested in the injuries, their prevention, the nature of the trauma and rehabilitation.  The physiology of cross country skiing, biathlon and speed skating fascinating, linked sadly with the potential for blood doping, EPO and use of other performance aids. But what I enjoy most is the triumph of  athletic endeavour, the thrill of competition, the achievement of greatness, the power of commitment.  It’s an escape, an antidote to reality; time out from the drudgery of seasonal minor illness, depression, and chronic disease.