How many times have you heard the phrase “don’t worry; it’s only a game”. It usually comes after a sporting loss, and often after one which feels particularly painful for one reason or another. It is, therefore, a phrase which I have never enjoyed hearing, even though I have found myself saying it from time to time. I thought of that phrase quite a lot over half term in relation to the Winter Olympics, which, though some of you will have watched a lot more of it than I did, never seems to fail to deliver the most amazing stories of personal success and heartbreak. Utmost amongst the latter was Elise Christie, world record holder in the 500m speed skating, and world champion in the 1000m and the 1500m in that same sport. Remarkably, she was disqualified in all three disciplines at Sochi and managed to match that record again this time, after a series of collisions on the ice in this most unpredictable of sports. After Sochi, so the story goes, all sorts of social media abuse piled misery upon her own deep disappointment and she was so mentally scarred that she almost gave up the sport altogether. Recently, however, she was inspired by her grandfather, who showed so much courage in the face of his own Alzheimer’s disease that she felt she had to overcome her fears and strive again for that medal. It was a story of utter dedication, love for a family member, pain and abuse in the face of adversity. “Only a game”. Well, not for her. There was a similar story after the women’s slopestyle snowboarding event; this is where competitors have to take on 30m high jumps and perform all sorts of twists and somersaults before landing on a steep downslope. Qualifying was cancelled because of the danger of high winds, but the main event went ahead despite wind gusts of up to 30mph. It was treacherous and there were only nine clean runs out of 52. When you have been training endlessly and in a focussed manner for four years and find that the performance of your life is dependent simply upon survival, it must be a pretty surreal day. Many were understandably upset, but perhaps the best reaction came from a German snowboarder, Silvia Mittermul, who simply tweeted from her hospital bed after the event “Life is like a card game: every once in a while you get surprised with a card that really doesn’t fit your hand but all you can do is keep playing with it the best you possible can.” That is pretty impressive.
On a political level, the games were amazing, held in PyeongChang, South Korea, only 40 miles from the demilitarized zone which separates North Korea from South Korea. When these two halves of Korea came to an agreement to end their war in 1953, there was in fact no peace treaty signed, so technically speaking, one could consider them still at war. Certainly recent rhetoric around the region has threatened world peace, and not just the peace of the peninsula. So, wasn’t it refreshing to see the athletes of South and North Korea competing under one flag, the ice hockey players playing as a combined team, and leading politicians from both states coming together to support. Naturally, there were sceptics, but only a month before the Olympics there was no assurance that the North Koreans would be there at all. So the fact that they not only came, but also unified and are now speaking, cannot be a bad thing for global peace. It is, in fact, reminiscent of the Ancient Olympics held in Olympia in Greece. In Ancient times, a truce was always announced across the Greek world for the duration of the Olympic games, so that the local towns were not in danger of attack and so that athletes and spectators could travel to and from the games without fear of violence. In a world where the various Greek city states were constantly at war with one another, this was quite a statement. So much so, in fact, that this truce was revived for the modern day Olympics by a United Nations resolution as recently as 1993. To a classicist, I must say that it is intensely heart-warming to know that such a truce, instigated by the ancient Greeks and intensified by modern day authorities, has now been played out in an entirely practical way by the Koreans at the Winter Olympics; it is, apparently, not just words.
So, “don’t worry, it is only a game”; well, I’d beg to differ. Sport can bring whole nations together; it can define individual lives; it can, and does, bring joy to many. That is not a bad start. These Olympics have done all of this, but I am also going to end by arguing that often, indeed, and thankfully, sport is only a game. Think of the Tongan Taekwondo athlete from the Rio summer Olympics two years ago, who retrained in cross country skiing to become Tonga’s first ever winter Olympian last week. He did not even train on snow until 12 weeks ago, having learnt to ski on roller-skis, and yet still had to qualify and did not come last. He, surely, is in sport for the fun of it, pure and simple – in fact, he even said after his race that the three of them at the back were “racing not to come last, but we will have a good laugh about it over dinner”. And yet, even then, imagine the hours he endured with nobody watching for weeks on end, training and training and training. And lastly, the best story of all involved a 22 year old Czech by the name of Ester Ledecker, who until two weeks ago was known as a top snowboarder who skied a bit (and for those who do not know the difference, snowboarding is a sideways, single board sport, like sea surfing, and skiing faces forwards on two skis – they are very different disciplines). Last week, this snowboarder won the women’s Super-Giant slalom skiing event on a pair of skis she had borrowed from a fellow competitor. After the event, she simply said:
“I don’t really think that I’ve the talent for skiing. I just ride down the hill; and I have had very much fun with it since I was a little child.”
Perhaps “it’s only a game” does still exist; I certainly hope so; but try explaining that to her competitors.