The curtain has fallen on the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic games after two weeks of competition. From a British perspective, it has been a successful one; equalling our greatest ever medal total – even though it was just four.
Admittedly I’ve found myself watching a few events, like the snowboarding half-pipe, the ski jumping and the curling, generally only because they are on and I feel that given the rarity of Winter Olympics that I should make an effort to watch some of the sports. The thing is though that I’ve little real interest in how far someone launches themselves off a hill, or how graceful someone is when skating round on a glorified frozen pond. The Winter Olympics are perhaps the most over-hyped sporting event on the calendar, when it comes down to it.
When comparing the Winter Olympics to its’ bigger brother from the summer, there is a stark difference. Around 2,800 athletes will have competed in Sochi this year, but over 10,000 took part in the London games of 2012. 88 nations are being represented in Russia, but 204 sent athletes to London (which represents more countries than the UN). There were 98 events in 7 different sports in this years’ Olympics compared to 302 events in 26 different sports in the 2012 Summer games. And the argument has been made on social network sites that most winter sports are different ways of sliding, a point that I find it hard to disagree with. No matter which way you look at it, the Winter Olympics does not stack up to its’ older and more illustrious counterpart. It is also handily trumped by football’s World Cup – with 203 countries competing in qualification and over 3 billion people said to have tuned into a game during 2010’s tournament.
Considering the world’s climate, the fact that winter sports can capture a somewhat global audience is impressive. Snow only covers at most a third of the world’s surface, and 98% of that is in the northern hemisphere. There is always going to be a bias at the Winter Olympics towards the generally richer north as well. However, the Winter Olympics still manages to attract competitors from South America and some Caribbean nations – showing that despite being weighted towards the colder, richer countries of Europe, there is still room for less winter sport orientated nations. Sport has a universal appeal, no matter what the stakes or the game, and I completely agree that celebrating sport in all its forms is a good thing.
However, with the relative niche of winter sport achieving more attention than it should be due: surely it must be time to start recognising other fields of sport as well. A natural progression could be to divide indoor and outdoor sports into two different events. With outdoor sports like baseball, cricket, orienteering, polo, rock climbing and surfing and indoor sports like karate, netball, pool/snooker, squash and ten-pin bowling all excluded from the current Olympic programme – there is a significant number of sports that could make two separate events work. Add in other genres like mind sports, such as chess, and the burgeoning e-sports genre and even more disciplines could be added.
Okay, breaking up the biggest global gathering on Earth might not be viable, but seeing all these “second-rate” sports together in one event would be good for each individual sport and for sport in general. We shouldn’t restrict the rights of these sports to be classified as Olympic whilst we allow many different types of snow sport to be just because they are fortunate enough to be prominent in winter. Cricket, despite many people’s faults with the game, is far more popular than most winter sports. The 2011 Cricket World Cup final drew 400 million TV viewers, with the semi-final between India and Pakistan estimated to have pulled in over a billion. Even the opening ceremony of Sochi 2014 would struggle to compete with those numbers. Yet cricket isn’t deserving of Olympic limelight compared to the 12 different cross-country skiing events or the 6 equestrian events.
The Winter Olympics aren’t going to melt away into insignificance any time soon, and nor should they. I do believe though that whilst we are hyping up and glamourizing winter sport for a few weeks every four years it would be worthwhile showcasing other games and disciplines in the wide sport spectrum under an Olympic banner – even if the event still falls short of the grandeur of the main Olympic event.