Listen to this article
There aren’t many mountain ski resorts which are also cities large enough to house 10,000 athletes and officials, 10,000 members of the media and 1m spectators. So the Winter Olympics are by definition too big.
Jean-Claude Killy, the triple gold medallist in the Grenoble Games of 1968, told me this week that what separated the crowd from the athletes almost 40 years ago was a small wooden fence, the planks of which resembled the racers’ skis. Now there are miles of high walls, security gates and long walkways.
The days are gone when a handful of spectators could throw open their curtains in St Moritz, note that the weather was set fair for the day and ponder taking in a little light luging after a stroll round town and a heavy lunch.
The result is that people have to plan their journeys days in advance and set off very early. And not just from Turin, where there long ago ceased to be free hotel rooms. I met a couple at the ice hockey this week who had to leave in mid game to catch a train back to Milan.
The problem with not being able just to drop in is that these huge trips up winding mountain roads are to watch sports often unsuitable for spectator viewing.
Take the luge. If you are in the stand at the finish line, the competitors slide at 140kmh having the most thrilling time of their lives for a minute or so, and you see them stand up at the end and take their sled indoors.
You can choose to stand next to a section of the ice run. Then just at the exact moment that you hear the sled approaching and look up, the luge runner is already past and out of sight.
The downhill races have many more spectators, and they also have almost nothing to see. A skier covers the entire face of a mountain in two minutes, risking everything, and the spectators see the last leap into the finish followed by a mournful look up at the clock.
Even spectators at the snowboard cross or slalom, where you can see more of the course, are dependent on large televisions in the finish area for almost all the thrills and spills.
Floodlighting means spectators today are treated to the added delight of being able to freeze off various parts of their bodies watching events after dark. Freestyle aerial jumping and spinning in the lit-up mountain night might look pretty special on television while you’re holding a warm mug of tea in your living room, and that is exactly where you should stay.
Some spectators have been creative though. Before descending into the finish area of the downhill, where you could see nothing, our bus traversed a mountain facing the whole of the Olympic run.
There, people were camped on the ice on the other side of the road’s crash barrier. The run was marked dark blue on either side, and you could see the trail snaking from the bottom all the way up the mountain to the start hut at the top. The skiers were mere dots on the landscape, but for a place to sit at altitude in sunshine, it could not be bettered.
These Games always threatened to never quite get going. Enthusiasm in most of Italy was muted, even in Turin. There have been few Italian successes and the far-flung nature of the events mean a real heart to the Olympics has been hard to find.
At the men’s slalom on Saturday, Ingemar Stenmark, the great Swedish slalom skier of the 1970s and 1980s was lamenting that the main Italian sports paper Gazetta dello Sport had eight pages of Olympics and 16 pages of football. “I came to the airport in Milan and there was nothing,” he said. “In the airport in Stockholm there were pictures everywhere, even an Olympic flame. But the Olympics are not in Sweden.”
The final disappointment came in the slalom. There was a very large crowd to watch one of the main events, and one in which there was great Italian hope. Giorgio Rocca had won five World Cup events this season and was a hot favourite. Another win and all would be forgotten, a rousing and magnificent finish to the Games.
Rocca was the first racer. The Italian flags came out and the noise built as he started down. An crescendo of spirit and hope and dreams rose up and over the mountains. And then he slipped, twisted, fell and was out. There was hardly a groan, unless I couldn’t hear it over my own. The mountain fell silent. The flags were put away. And after Sunday night’s closing ceremony, they won’t come out again for a long time.