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Sunday’s men’s downhill firmly focuses attention on the sport part of the Olympics after months of environmental protests and fretting over budgets and preparations. The worries had already started to subside gracefully after Friday night’s opening ceremony. On Saturday only a tiny gathering could be mustered to heckle Laura Bush.
The 27,000 spectators for the Winter Olympics’ opening ceremony were handed a pack of materials with which to participate in aspects of the show.
There was a flashlight to turn on in the dark, just like holding up your lighter at gigs in years gone by when the rock band starting playing the sloppy love song. There was a cow bell to ring at the show’s pastoral moment - cows on sleds (not real ones, of course; cows, that is). And there was a white plastic hooded poncho to wear, so that everyone in the audience looked suitably snowbound, or as the American next to me remarked grimly, late arrivals at a southern racists’ revivalist meeting.
Other early entrants in the show included prancing fir trees, briefly reminiscent of some scenes from Lord of the Rings. And there were red and black clad dancers in shiny skintight outfits of what seemed like rubber or latex. The vast lighting rig for this vaguely kinky pole dance soon rotated 90 degrees to reveal that it was in fact the Olympic rings themselves, all beaming and glorious, and a sharp (or possibly circular) reminder of why we there.
Then came the march of the different countries, unquestionably a very proud moment for the athletes but a little dull for the spectators who were nonetheless roused to give loud cheers for some of the smallest and most incongruous delegations - the two Kenyans, for example.
The DJs played an easy mix of 1970s disco classics, as if they hadn’t bought a record for 25 years and the Virgin Islands team appeared around the same time as Barry White.
Then after 80 countries had paraded round the stadium, Peter Gabriel sang John Lennon’s Imagine, a hymn to peace enjoining the crowd and all the athletes to imagine, among other things, that there were no countries. The world would be a better place, but team sports would be harder to organise.
And so the competition started on Saturday and I travelled to the mountains in pursuit of the “Speeding Sausage” - Georg Hackl. The German has his nickname because he is pushing 40 and and is not so fetching in lycra as he used to be. He does still look a little like Jimmy Hill, the former footballer and mainstay of British television commentary.
Hackl is one of those athletes who defines Olympic spirit. This is his sixth Winter Olympics and he has won medals at the last five - three golds and two silvers. His sport is the luge, men or women balanced on a speeding sled, or tea tray if you prefer, hurtling down the bobsled run at 140kmh. It is only slightly less insane than the sport of skeleton, where instead of going down feet first on ther back, the competitors go down head first on their front.
Hackl has lifted himself for one last Olympics, and is not fancied for gold this time. In the first two of four runs on Saturday he came a respectable third but dropped down the field in the second run. The final two runs are on Sunday and the sausage, I’m afraid, looks cooked.
More from Adrian Michaels in Turin:
Games preview: Olympic loner aims to come in from cold