I’ve been slow to get into these Winter Olympics, not quite sharing the enthusiasm of the skiathlon commentators, the normal hill commentators and the half-pipe commentators (nobody comes close to the latter, so fond of shrieking: “Huge backside air!”) But all that changed yesterday thanks to Elise Christie and my new favourite sport.
The official name for it is short-track speed skating and in the space of 55 crazy seconds our girl went from silver medal to fourth to eighth or wherever this brutal race deemed suitable for banishment. Home, perhaps, or maybe even the salt mines. Well, they won’t get rid of Christie that easily. This was the 500 metres and she’ll be back in the 1,000 metres. I can hardly wait for that.
“Aaagh, they’ve gone down! They’ve all gone down!” For once in Sochi the huge backside air of the man at the mic was completely justified. Arianna Fontana from Italy, Park Seung-Hi from South Korea and Christie from Livingston, West Lothian collided on a bend in a gruesome tangle of lycra, super-developed thigh muscle and fierce, bladed-up ambition.
The three of them thundered into different sections of the perimeter wall. Park recovered first only to fall straight back down again. China’s Li Jianrou, who was last at this point, picked her way through the chaos and sharp steel to win, rather like Foinavon in the 1967 Grand National. But Christie managed to pick herself up and claim second. Or so we thought. We wuz robbed!
Or so we thought until the rules were explained. Short-track speed skating isn’t Rollerball on ice. It isn’t It’s A Knockout on skates. It isn’t trying to recreate the scene at a municipal rink where a rough-tough girl gang from the neighbouring town has pitched up, intent on sullen baiting, leading to a square-go behind the juice-and-crisps kiosk. In attempting such a bold move, charging up the inside, you cannot wipe out the opposition like that and, of course, this hadn’t been Christie’s intention.
But rules are heartless rules. In short track, if you do what she did yesterday, you get demoted below the “B” finalists who haven’t been involved and might have gone off shopping, hence eighth place.
She was devastated. Putting herself before the cameras, traces of a good greet still evident, the interviewer had no cause to ask her the dreaded “How does it feel… ?” question and, for once, it didn’t come. “I had the speed so I moved on up,” she said. “I used my instinct and went for it. Now I’m regretting that.”
Christie was sure she’d been nicked first, causing her to “hit everyone else”. She was dignified, though, accepting the judges’ verdict even though she disagreed with it, and added: “That’s just the way short track goes.” If only she’d stayed back, she’d have been on the podium, possibly with the bronze. “But I went for the win.”
No shame there, even though the temptation to describe her effort as typically Scottish, snatching eighth from the jaws of second, is almost too easy to resist. How long, though, before we say “that’s short track” in the routine, everyday way we say “that’s football”? The sport is growing, sponsorship is coming, Christie has an agent now – and yesterday’s high drama with the promise of more to come will surely help some more.
There’s no getting away from this: we the potential audience like crashes. The previous evening on Match of the Day, a football referee was accidentally bundled to the ground. “I don’t know why that’s still funny,” said Gary Lineker, “but it is.” But this was nothing compared to the slapstick of Sochi and how easily it evoked a Winter Wonderland theme-park high on E numbers and squeezed into too-small skates.
I must be careful here not to tread on the dreams of the skaters. Careful, too, in a Games riven with sexual politics not to infer that there might be something erotic in the wham-bam (although there surely is). But Christie, 23, seems driven without being tunnel-vision dull – she likes to engage her rivals in chat before races, not really meaning to break their middle-distance staring – and can see the funny side of her sport. “I’m here for comical value,” she laughed when she fell over twice in the space of a minute at the qualifiers for Sochi. “I’m obviously devastated inside, but hey-ho.”
The crashes allow we mere mortals, the Bambis on ice, to vaguely relate to short track. The speed of the races and the track itself do not. The straights are over so quickly that the skaters are always lurching into another bend. Coming from Livingston, the roundabout capital of Scotland, Christie must feel completely at home.