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Biathlon and skeleton racing: Opposites meet on the slopes of Turin’s Winter Olympic Games

TURIN – There is something beautifully natural about cross-country skiing, a sport that demands efficient full-body movements, long strides and no wasted energy and is set among peaceful woods and hills nestled in soft snow. There is something frightfully unnatural about skeleton racing, which involves flying down an icy chute headfirst at suicidal speeds on a tiny sled with no brakes. Both these sports flaunted their stuff late this week at the Turin Winter Olympics, and mercifully, within shouting distance of each other. Hordes of flag-bedraped Russians, Norwegians and Ukrainians flocked once again to the Valle Argentera early on Thursday. They were heading for the women’s 7.5km sprint race at the Cesana San Sicario biathlon facility, packed aboard coaches at the unexceptional collecting point of Oulx station after sloshing through the gooey muck that was once a dirt path, to the makeshift ticket booths dispensing frightfully expensive tickets. They looked right in their element. They certainly found that the mountain weather is fickle. The day had dawned with hazy sunshine, but quickly deteriorated to clouds and then a pelting rain; on the way up the mountains a heavy fog descended, and by the time our coach had wound its way up to the biathlon track, which lies at 1,690 meters, snow was swirling. An hour after that the skies had opened up to a spectacular blue, revealing peaks of frosty white. After days of negotiating far-flung venues throughout the Piedmont region, with three hours’ traveling time not uncommon, this neck of the Italian mountains proved a godsend. The area boasts multiple venues scattered up and down the steep slopes, at the foot of which lies the pretty resort town of Cesana, with its half-frozen little river. Up the road, the suspended cableway sets off up the hill, its individual cabins boasting glass siding, seats for eight and stunning views. It stops first at Cesana Pariol, where the skeleton, bobsleigh and luge events take place. The Cesana San Sicario biathlon facility is up further, while looming above it all are the steep slopes of San Sicario Fraitere, where women’s Alpine races are being held. It’s all layered like a cake, and mercifully easy to work your way around. Cross-country skiing is serious business in the colder European countries. This sport utilizes narrower, lighter, and shorter skis than the ones Alpine skiers use; they make for a marvelously efficient athletic combination if also an exhausting turn for the competitors. Skiing cross country while carrying a rifle on your back adds a definite twist, as biathlon involves both the heart-pounding endurance of long-distance skiing and the stock-still precision of a shooter. At intervals the skiers stop, doff their rifles, take aim at five targets in a row, then get back on their skis for another loop around the 2.5km course. The venue’s temporary stands are set up next to the start and finish, close to the shooting range and inevitable video screens, but the better bet is to buy a (cheaper) standing ticket, which gives full run of the grounds and different vantage points. These events are notable not only for their sights but also their spectator sounds. Apart from collective yells in every tongue, you can hear kazoos, bullhorns, noisy cranks (not irritating people, but wooden instruments that make a terrible racket when you wind them up), whistles, cowbells in every size – you name it. To watch a burly ski fan sloshing a large cup of beer while negotiating an icy slope, national flag in the other hand, is to watch an Olympic winter aficionado truly in his element. The competition itself featured 78 skiers, and was won by Florence Bavarel-Robert of France; Anna Carin Oloffsson of Sweden took silver and Ukraine’s Lilia Efremova the bronze. Three Russians placed in the top 10, although the powerhouse Norwegians could manage only a 12th place. These mountains, which abut the French border, have been good to the French contingent; just days before at nearby Sestriere, unheralded Antoine Deneriaz of France took the men’s downhill in authoritative fashion. His compatriot Bavarel-Robert was treated, in the curious fashion of Torino 2006, to an on-site, post-race «flower ceremony,» a chance for the top three finishers to celebrate in preliminary fashion before the official medals ceremony back in central Turin later that evening. Having two different ceremonies may not appeal to everyone, but it’s the sort of compromise that has been struck to meet the needs of these widely spread Winter Games. The skeleton races take place just down the hill at a new facility snaking up and down an unadorned dirt hillside that still looks, for all intents and purposes, like a construction site. But the track and course itself is excellent and technically demanding, or so I was told by British skeleton racer Kristan Bromley, who was on hand to watch his compatriot Shelley Rudman in the women’s race. The race involves a brutal, headfirst plunge down the ice. For a spectator it can be frustrating; blink and they’re gone, although you can get within a meter of the racers, almost frighteningly close given all that can conceivably go wrong for the racers. The skeleton races consist of two heats; after the times of the first heat have been confirmed, the places are reversed for the second run, as the best go last. There were only 15 competitors in the women’s competition – not surprisingly, considering the breakneck nature of the sport – and the race was for second place after Switzerland’s Maya Petersen set a track record of 59.64 seconds in the first run, the only racer in either heat to beat the one-minute barrier. The UK’s Rudman pulled the silver and Canada’s Melissa Hollingsworth-Richards the bronze. Unfortunately for me, I missed the second and final heat, having found refuge in the medical services hut, sweater pulled over my head as the doctor on service probed my hacks and coughs with a stethoscope. It was, at any rate, a different sort of view of the Games than most people would expect. Local television coverage in Italy of these Games is very good, if rather partisan. As in probably most countries, the local contingent gets the lion’s share of the coverage; Italian medalists are overnight stars. The home team has done respectably so far, but no event drew more excitement in the first week of the Games than the men’s three-man speed-skating team pursuit. The Italians cut a wide swath through the competition, first beating the Americans (led by individual gold medalist Chad Hedrick) with a new Olympic record, then beating the heavily favored Dutch in the semis after two Dutch skaters caught their skates and crashed out spectacularly. Italy beat Canada for the gold, with the TV announcers yelling themselves hoarse in all the excitement.