By CATHAL KELLY
Tuesday, February 13, 2018
PYEONGCHANG, SOUTH KOREA -- Imagine yourself studying four years for an exam. Not dipping in and out of the material, but going hard at it like a full-time job.
Then imagine showing up for the test to be told they'd run out of English-language copies. You'll have to take it in German instead.
Maybe a few people in the room speak German. They're the lucky ones. Everyone else will fail. Also, the whole thing's being televised globally and a few of the failures will be thrown down a flight of stairs afterward. This is not a precise analogy for the women's slopestyle snowboard event held in near-typhoon conditions on Monday. Because the reality was worse.
Having cancelled Sunday's qualifiers due to high winds, officials with the International Ski Federation (FIS) decided to cram the whole event into Monday. When the conditions had deteriorated.
Just standing at the foot of the course was excruciating - bitter cold, unpredictable gusts driving loose snow like undulating curtains, causing brief whiteouts. By the second run, most of the capacity crowd had left.
Up higher on the mountain, the effect was more intense. For competitors coming down the course over open ground, it was like parasailing through a hurricane.
"It's terrifying," Canadian Brooke Voigt said afterward. "Picture holding an umbrella in the wind.
That's your snowboard."
Athletes were coming over the vertical jumps like they'd been blown out of a cannon - arms windmilling, turning wildly, legs shot out, occasionally fully horizontal - then landing like sacks of flour. Many gave up mid-run, suddenly realizing they were on a kamikaze mission.
That's how Canadian Spencer O'Brien ended her day, pulling up short on her second attempt after deciding she was more likely to end up landing on her head than her feet. She finished 22nd.
A former world champion, Ms. O'Brien competed in this event in Sochi four years ago. She had a similarly bad placing then and came off the course disconsolate, sobbing uncontrollably. This time, there were no tears.
Instead, Ms. O'Brien was angry.
"Sochi was a perfect day of riding. Perfect conditions, bluebird, great snow. That was a day we could do our absolute best," she said.
"Here, I can't beat myself up about today. That was completely out of my control."
Ms. O'Brien blamed FIS organizers. She said none of the riders had been consulted about going ahead, which is typical at professional events.
"At the very least ... our opinions are taken into consideration. And that wasn't done here, on either day," Ms. O'Brien said.
"I think 90 per cent of the women did not want to ride today."
That estimation seemed to jibe with a close viewing. Many competitors crept down the course, gingerly approaching each jump at low speed.
Once they began to turn in the air, you could see the wind getting hold of them. As a rule, women snowboarders are little people. Their boards act like sails. Several of the smallest racers were twenty feet into their jumps when they began to rise in the air.
One of the few who got the benefit of good wind and a good ride was Canadian Laurie Blouin.
She took a silver - Canada's third medal in slopestyle.
If this course beat people up, Ms. Blouin had the scars - an impressive shiner she'd got after smashing her face during a practice session.
Understandably, Ms. Blouin had no problem with the decision to go ahead.
"For sure it was unfair," she said. "But I was ready."
"Before my first run I was just up there crying," Norway's Silje Norendal said. "It is crazy that we did it today."
Presumably, Ms. O'Brien and Ms. Norendal were also ready.
But though Ms. Blouin should be congratulated on her accomplishment, none of these competitors should have been asked to go ahead, ready or not.
We know the IOC has allowed the Olympics to become a largely mercantile endeavour. It's not an event any more. It's an event business.
But that tendency rarely bleeds into the Games proper.
Once the torch is lit, some semblance of purity is re-established and the athletes assume control.
And they do not care about hitting marketing targets for advertisers.
This Olympics will continue for 14 more days. The slopestyle course will be in use for two of them. So why go ahead on Monday? What was the rush?
The rush is NBC and all the other broadcasters who have had their schedules written in ink for months. It's sponsors who've trucked VIP clients in from around the world to stand on a ski hill on a specific day, and goddammit they're going to see some snowboarding.
It's letting a cruel inertia take over when a small pause and some good sense were in order.
There was no compelling reason to run slopestyle on Monday. The only reason was that somebody had put "slopestyle" under "February 12" on a master spreadsheet years ago.
If they were angry, the Canadian riders who did not win were also disappointed. Not for themselves, but for the sport. Women's competitive snowboard has this one chance every four years to reach a massive audience.
What those newbie viewers saw looked farcical.
"It's really just ... I don't think it's what we had hoped to show here," Ms. Voigt said.
It wasn't about ego. It was about relevance.
For Ms. O'Brien, it was also about a small redemption.
In Russia, she'd been in the midst of an ongoing battle with pernicious pain. She'd been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (she'd thought the fact that she couldn't get out of bed in the mornings was a side-effect of her work).
In Sochi, she had yet to find the proper mix of medication to treat her symptoms. It had not worked out as she'd hoped.
Here, having waited years for the chance to close her Olympic circle, she ends up literally blown off the field of play.
It isn't fair. A lot of things about sport aren't. But this is a different sort of unfair. It's being needlessly careless with people and brings the entire organization into disrepute.
Because no one was seriously hurt, the story of the race that should not have been will catch no international attention. That Olympic inertia will have pushed us past this by the time you read this.
But it should be remembered that disaster was only averted here because of luck. What would the IOC's explanation have been had one of these riders been grievously injured on live TV?
Because I doubt, "No matter what, the Games must go on" would do it.
For competitors such as Switzerland's Isabel Derungs, clockwise, and Carla Somaini, Julia Marino of the United States and Britain's Aimee Fuller, coming down the course over open ground was like parasailing through a hurricane.
KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
Laurie Blouin celebrates after winning a silver medal in women's snowboard slopestyle at the Phoenix Snow Park on Monday in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS