You may have missed it, but anarchists stole the Olympic flame on Monday evening. Four of them snatched it from the hands of the athlete Eleonora Berlanda as she was parading it through Trento in Italy. The disobbedienti tried to dash off but were nabbed within seconds by Berlanda and her companions. The anarchists should have checked on Berlanda’s sport first: she is a runner. As it was, they barely even got on television.
It seems that nothing can awake the world to the winter Olympics. The Games open in Turin on February 10, but even 58.5 per cent of Italians aren’t aware of them, according to a recent poll in an Italian monthly. More than a third of the 1m tickets for the Games remain unsold. By contrast, 89 per cent of tickets were sold for the Nagano Winter Olympics of 1998, and 95 per cent for Salt Lake City in 2002.
However, a few cold countries are passionate about the winter Games.
For them, the event transcends sport: it’s about national identity.
The whole world watches the same football World Cup, but each of these few countries constructs its own version of the winter Olympics. To Austrians, these Games are chiefly a skiing contest. Austria is terrible at most sports but dominates skiing, and even obscure races glue millions to their TV sets. Yet few Austrians plan to schlep to Turin to watch their heroes live. Skiing is better viewed at home, behind a mug of hot chocolate with whipped cream, than on a freezing hillside surrounded by security agents. Austria isn’t even among the 10 countries that have bought the most tickets for Turin.
The Swiss will travel in only slightly larger numbers. This is forgivable, given that getting from Switzerland to Turin is a pain, and that Swiss skiing is currently awful. Adolf Ogi, the UN special adviser on sport, who as Swiss skiing chief in the 1970s oversaw the glory days, told me: “In my time skiing races emptied the streets. In recent years we have had too many failures. We must be careful that we don’t completely lose interest in skiing competitions.”
At the risk of sounding like a 1930s’ fascist: the love of any nation is mixed up with its landscape. Skiing practically is Switzerland. The Swiss traditionally think of themselves as mountain animals, much like the chamois. “The idea that the source of naturalness flows from the mountains and creates a vigorous autarkical people of shepherds and farmers” is nearly 300 years old, says the Swiss writer Michael Gamper. The nation will gather around its TV sets for Turin, but expects nothing.
Just as the Swiss commune with their landscape through skiing, the Dutch do so through skating. The sociologist Herman Vuijsje theorises that they feel at their most Dutch when gliding over frozen canals before warming themselves with pea soup, scenes depicted in many 17th-century paintings. At certain races in Turin, Dutch spectators will be in the majority. Marnix Koolhaas, a Dutch skating historian, says that these orange-clad fans, largely rural and almost all white, who cheer for a millionaire-free sport that exists chiefly in the Netherlands, are recreating their country as it was before globalisation.
Norwegians are rare in following several winter sports. The country with the most medals per capita in the winter Games has bought probably the most tickets per capita for Turin.
“I believe the Winter Olympics have higher status in Norway than in any other country,” says Matti Goksøyr, a Norwegian sports historian. Again, this is tied up with love of the national landscape. Skiing in Norway and Sweden, writes the historian Niels Kayser Nielsen, is a “bodily experience of nationalism”.
Not so in Italy. Italians have bought only a third of all tickets sold for the Turin Games. The sun-kissed nation just doesn’t like winter sports. Most Italian winter Olympians are from the country’s far north, and their Germanic surnames distance them from their compatriots. There is smirking on Italian radio when “our Italian brother Armin Zoeggeler” wins the luge again. Silvio Berlusconi, the prime minister, acquiesced in cutting some funding for the Olympics, knowing that few Italians care.
The surprise is the identity of the country that has bought most tickets for the Games after the Italians. It’s the US, despite the distance and the weak dollar. The American influx heralds a geographic shift for the winter Olympics. In Europe, winter sports are starting to disappear from the landscape because global warming is happening faster here than anywhere else. Dutch canals seldom freeze any more. On the Alps’ lower slopes, skiing is becoming impossible. By 2100, Europe may have lost its skiing industry.
Europeans are now fighting to preserve their sports artificially. The Dutch increasingly skate indoors, and are building the first artificial skating trail through their countryside. The Swiss and Austrians are using snow cannons. But it’s hard to get sentimental about man-made snow.
If winter sports do vanish from Europe, several cold countries will have to refashion their national identities.
By the time the winter Games return to Europe, the Swiss and Dutch will probably be less interested.
The winter Games may gradually become an American affair. Most of the US’s skiing resorts are higher than Europe’s, and therefore less vulnerable to global warming. However, Americans tend to have an unsentimental relationship with winter sports: they associate them less with national traditions than with youth culture.
The transatlantic divide is clearest in speed-skating. Whereas Dutch skaters tend to be old-fashioned rural types, several of the Americans started out as trendy inline skaters (ie rollerbladers).
One day the winter Olympics may be merely the elder sister of the Winter X Games, America’s annual festival of extreme sports. European winter sports have only one hope: that freezing water from the melting polar ice caps disrupts the warm Gulf Stream and triggers a new European ice age, as some climatologists are predicting. That might even revive Swiss skiing.