August 15th, 2012
06:51 PM ET
March 3rd, 2010
12:39 PM ET

Russian president seeks days-of-old

Has Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, crossed the line with his call for some members of the Russian Olympic hierarchy to resign in the wake of Russia’s poor performance at the Winter Games?

Russian president Dmitry Medvedev near the Black Sea resort of Sochi, where the 2014 Winter Olympics will be held. (AFP/Getty Images)
Russian president Dmitry Medvedev near the Black Sea resort of Sochi, where the 2014 Winter Olympics will be held. (AFP/Getty Images)

I’d have to say no. While government interference in sporting affairs is frowned upon or outlawed altogether, I feel that Medvedev, who’s the representative of the Russian people after all, is only saying what many of his countrymen are thinking.

Russia has continued its steady Olympic decline by posting its worst ever tally at a Winter Olympic Games with just 15 medals, only three of which were gold. Medvedev is naturally outraged by the sub-par performance and clearly believes in accountability.

With the Russian city of Sochi set to host the next Winter Games in 2014, I would have thought a pre-emptive strike by Medvedev is perfectly justified in order to arrest the slide and prevent a repeat showing in four years time, which would be infinitely more embarrassing on home soil.

What’s more, he’s been constructive, suggesting that the emphasis is no longer placed on the wants and needs of the men in gray suits in the upper echelons of Russian sport but on the young guns in tracksuits, that is to say the athletes who ultimately make the sacrifices and bring home the glory.

Such re-prioritizing is nothing new among sporting nations. Indeed, government interest in sport is often welcomed, because it usually carries with it some funding.

Of course, no one wants political involvement to extend to the level it did in Iraq for example, where Uday Hussein dictated sporting policy with a brutal fist of iron. However, that was government meddling at its most extreme, and there’s a lot of ground between dictatorship and what Medvedev is suggesting, which could be beneficial to all concerned.

So why the negative reaction to Medvedev’s comments? Well it’s obviously because his words invoke memories of the Soviet Union when Soviet sport was rife with corruption and was used first and foremost as a vehicle for political propaganda.

Now though, times have changed. While he acknowledged that Russian sport has lost something since the old Soviet days, I think some are too ready to read something sinister into that.

To my mind, he simply said, “We were good, now we're not, let’s do something about it.” And, at the risk of sounding naïve, I can’t, as yet, see anything wrong with that. But perhaps you can tell me different.

March 1st, 2010
11:19 PM ET

At Olympics closing, lone athlete stands proudly for Chile

If you watched Sunday’s closing ceremony of the just concluded Olympic Winter Games, you saw a mix of humor and humility. Canadians, known for poking fun at themselves, did plenty of it during the two-hour show from BC Place in downtown Vancouver. From actor and commercial pitchman William Shatner rising from the center of the stage to proclaim, in his own special way, that he’s proud to be Canadian to the huge floating moose that circled the arena from high above, the closing ceremony had it all.

Noelle Barahona on the snowy slopes of Whistler near Vancouver. (AFP/Getty Images)
Noelle Barahona on the snowy slopes of Whistler near Vancouver. (AFP/Getty Images)

Amid all the joyous mayhem that ensued in the wake of the terrific 17-day sporting festival, there was one Olympian taking part in the Vancouver Games finale who could be excused if her mind was elsewhere.

Chilean alpine skier Noelle Barahona almost missed the ceremony. If it wasn’t for the fact that she couldn’t get a flight back to her homeland earlier in the weekend, Barahona would have already been back on South American soil.

While Barahona and the small Chilean delegation prepared to close out the final weekend of the games, a deadly earthquake shook their homeland to its very core. The news spread north and the rush to the airport was on. When Barahona learned that family members, many of whom accompanied the skier to Vancouver, and friends in her native Santiago were fine, Noelle decided to take part in the closing extravaganza.

Barahona was the only Chilean athlete to walk into BC Place with her fellow Olympians. Chile’s two other athletes, both alpine skiers, had already left Vancouver as they had previously planned.

The night gave Barahona a chance to catch-up with and say goodbye to the many friends that she made during her stay in the athletes village. It allowed the skier to reflect on her Olympic experience. It also, for a few short hours, gave the Chilean a chance to enjoy her remaining hours in Canada before making the trip south and into the unknown.

Life for Noelle Barahona was surreal, on many levels, here at the Vancouver Winter Olympics. Returning to life in an earthquake ravaged country will likely be the same.

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Filed under:  2010 Winter Games
March 1st, 2010
10:46 AM ET

From grief to triumph – what a Games!

It’s always hard to be objective when you have “worked” an Olympics - lived and breathed every day of it, on the ground, from the inside - but I believe this was a great Winter Games.

Canadian figure skater Joannie Rochette overcame the death of her mother to take the bronze medal (Getty Images).
Canadian figure skater Joannie Rochette overcame the death of her mother to take the bronze medal (Getty Images).

The fact that Vancouver 2010 got off to such a difficult start actually worked in its favor. After days of rain, controversy and tragedy the mood slowly improved - and felt all the more satisfying for the turnaround.

Why did it change for the better? Well, to manipulate that overused political slogan: “It’s the sport stupid!”

Yes, the ever-increasing commercialization of the Olympics is an irritation and, yes, we in the media can be guilty of exaggerating both successes and failures.

However, the Games are still inspirational, and when you peel back the layers you’re left with the individual stories of courage, determination and excellence which make sport, generally, and the Olympics, in particular, so compelling.

In case you missed them, here are my favorites:

Petra Majdic won a bronze medal after skiing more than five kilometers cross country with broken ribs and a punctured lung. She had injured herself during a fall in training, but refused to take a pain killing injection before the race because it would hinder her movement and she was desperate to win Slovenia’s first medal in the event.

Canadian figure skater Joannie Rochette somehow found the focus to claim a bronze medal just days after her mother died in Vancouver General Hospital following a heart attack. Therese Rochette had come to the city to watch her daughter compete. Joannie, still stunned by the sudden loss of her mum, earned an emotional place on the podium.

He’s broke, a recovering alcoholic and has tried to commit suicide on more than one occasion, but American freestyle skier Jeret “Speedy” Peterson conquered all of his personal demons to take the silver medal in the aerials competition.

Kwame Nkrumah-Acheampong, Ghana’s "Snow Leopard," put a smile on everyone’s face. With echoes of Jamaica’s bobsled team and ski-jumper Eddie “the Eagle” Edwards, the former indoor ski center worker rightfully claimed his place among the Winter Olympians here - and successfully negotiated two runs in the men’s slalom.

There were more than two-and-a-half-thousand athletes at these Vancouver Games and there are many other stories, not to mention one of the most exciting hockey matches of all time. Before I came to Canada for the first time I said I didn’t “get” (ice) hockey. I do now.

I also got the experience of a lifetime - not a cliché, a fact. Every Olympics is unique and inspirational, and this one has been no exception.

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Filed under:  2010 Winter Games
February 18th, 2010
02:41 PM ET

Has the U.S. proved that winning's in the blood?

America's history-making performance at the Winter Olympics on Wednesday summed up why the country has a reputation for winning, and why no other nation should try to copy them – especially the hosts here in Canada.

Shaun White's gold on the half pipe was part of an American medal rush Wednesday (Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images).
Shaun White's gold on the half pipe was part of an American medal rush Wednesday (Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images).

Never before has the United States won so many medals on a single day of Winter Games competition – and four of the six athletes knew exactly what it takes to finish on top of an Olympic podium.

On the one hand, you could argue that this makes it easier for them to win again. However, I would say more people fail to carry on winning compared to those who are able to repeat significant triumphs.

The mark of a true sporting champion is someone who continues to rack up momentous victories despite the inexorable and burdensome rise of expectation.

And the Olympics is one of the harshest competitive spotlights of all. You have athletes from sports that are largely ignored for four years and who are then asked to perform in front of the world’s gaze.

The not so subtle message is: “Don’t worry, it’s only you and your entire country’s pride at stake.”

Which brings us to the hosts of these Games. This is my first visit to Canada and, while I wouldn’t presume to take Vancouver as representative of the whole country, I’ve enjoyed what I’ve seen. The locals have been friendly, the city feels homely and the surrounding landscape is spectacular.

Nearly all Canadians I have spoken to seem to be as self-deprecating as the British can be. For both countries, I would suggest there is an unwritten rule that the Americans can confidently strut as much as they like but we just don’t approach our sport like that.

However, the Canadians have approached these Olympic Games like that. There are television adverts banging the patriotic drum, hype surrounds every home medal hope and there is wall-to-wall maple-leaf mania.

Now, I’m not pretending for a second that my country – the UK – won’t do exactly the same thing when London hosts the summer games in 2012. But it won’t make it any less of a mistake.

There’s a fine line between wallowing in the glory of being a host nation, whipping up nationalistic fervour for the sake of making the event a commercial success and sabotaging your own athletes chances of success.

Would Canada have won more medals by now if they hadn’t tried so hard? Or do we have to admit the Americans are just born winners? After all, Lindsay Vonn, Shaun White and Shani Davis hit the golden target, despite everyone breathing down their necks.

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Filed under:  2010 Winter Games
February 15th, 2010
11:33 AM ET

Thrilling race on the ice books speedskater's place in history

If you ever consider purchasing tickets to an Olympic Winter Games sport, might I suggest short-track speedskating? In a word, WOW!

South Korean Jung-Su Lee crosses the finish-line ahead of Canada's Charles Hamelin and American speedskating legend Apolo Anto Ohno.
South Korean Jung-Su Lee crosses the finish-line ahead of Canada's Charles Hamelin and American speedskating legend Apolo Anto Ohno.

Venue: the Pacific Coliseum, event: the 1500 metres men's short-track final. Having never before taken-in this sport in person, I didn't really know what to expect.

I did know from the television pictures that I've seen through the years that short-track seemed to be the real deal. Many times the race isn't over 'till it's over and sometimes even then it's not finished.

This is precisely how it went for Apolo Anton Ohno on this night. Ohno was, without a doubt, the most popular skater in the house. Even the Canadian crowd, who would have loved to see one of their own claim the gold, was behind the 27-year-old in his pursuit of U.S. Olympic history.

When Ohno was introduced, the fans roared and rang cowbells to increase the decibel level in an already noisy arena. Once the race began, off a starter's gun, it was a little difficult to focus from the upper level of the stands. So much was going on as the skaters went 'round and 'round the ice.

Ohno fell back in the pack at one point and then made his move toward the front as the laps wound down. Your eyes would, at one moment, be fixed on the white ice and then you'd look up at the scoreboard to keep up with positioning. Talk about multi-tasking!

As the race neared the finish line, it looked as if South Korea would sweep the podium. Ohno must have been thinking "oh no". Then, in a blink of an eye, one Korean took out another Korean with an ill-advised pass on the final turn. As the teammates crashed into the protective barrier, Ohno and his U.S. teammate J.R. Celski skated to the line to claim the silver and the bronze respectively behind Jung-Su Lee from South Korea who won the gold medal.

While Ohno waited for the results to become official, he raised six fingers into the air, representing the six Olympic medals he's claimed over the course of his career. What played out next will live in my Olympic memories.

Ohno retrieved a United States flag and draped it across his shoulders. With a big smile on his face, the speedskating star seemingly let out a big sigh once the finishing order was set in stone. As he circled the ice, with his country's flag in tow, Apolo Anto Ohno did so as the most decorated male Winter Olympian in U.S. history.

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Filed under:  2010 Winter Games
February 14th, 2010
12:15 AM ET

Vancouver's opening ceremony flawed, but perfect

Okay, they blew the money shot but, on reflection, the botched lighting of the Olympic flame actually added to Vancouver’s opening ceremony.

The Olympic flame is lit at the conclusion of the opening ceremony for the Winter Games in Vancouver .
The Olympic flame is lit at the conclusion of the opening ceremony for the Winter Games in Vancouver .

It was hard for organizers to get the tone right following the death of luger Nodar Kumaritashvili. No matter how tragic, it would have been wrong if the commemorations to him had featured too prominently.

The young Georgian died doing a dangerous sport, but one that he had trained for and knew the risks of. Very different, for example, to the terrorist attack on Togo’s football team at the recent Africa Cup of Nations.

There was a fitting tribute from Kumaritashvili’s team-mates, who wore black armbands and scarves to go with the grim expression on their faces. They were given a standing ovation in BC Place and there was even a smattering of applause where I was watching – a giant marquee, mostly filled with Canadians waiting to cheer their nation’s competitors.

The fans had heard about the accident and, despite being well lubricated with alcohol, a hush descended as they watched the minute’s silence at Friday's opening ceremony.

Kumaritashvili was also mentioned in the official speeches, but the rest of the evening was filled with the usual pre-Olympic theatrics.

Having to follow Beijing’s cinematic-style epic opening ceremony for the 2008 Summer Olympics was always going to be a tough challenge for Vancouver’s organizers, but in my opinion they rose to it.

I’ll admit I can be a bit sentimental at times, but when VANOC boss John Furlong said, "We invite people everywhere to share and experience, even if just for a few moments, what it feels like to be a proud Canadian," – I did.

And, as a Brit working for an American company, I have to confess it tickled me that the second biggest cheer of the night came when poet Shane Koyczan declared “Yes, we say zed not zee."

Then, as the patriotic fervour was at its height, one of the pillars supporting the Olympic cauldron failed to rise. How embarrassing. The final four torch-bearers had ear pieces and knew what was going on, but they still didn’t look comfortable.

But you know what? I think it was great. Unlike China a year and a half ago, Canada shouldn’t be trying to serve up another robotic, clinical Games. This is a diverse country, vast, beautiful and imperfect – and that’s cause for celebration.

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Filed under:  2010 Winter Games
February 11th, 2010
10:44 PM ET

Will Vancouver Olympics be better than Beijing?

So, after months of anticipation, here we are… in Vancouver on the cusp of another Olympic Games. Well, another one for me after losing my Olympic “virginity” reporting from Beijing in 2008.

Olympic rings light the Vancouver harbour while fear mounts that increased security will strangle the spirit of the games.
Olympic rings light the Vancouver harbour while fear mounts that increased security will strangle the spirit of the games.

Already, I’m running down a mental checklist, comparing the two cities. Difficult because they are in two, very different countries and the Winter and Summer Games are very different events.

For a start, only around 80 nations will compete here in Vancouver, compared to 204 in Beijing. No surprise then that flying in to Canada was a lot quieter than arriving in China a year and a half ago.

I landed only slightly later than I’d taken off from London Heathrow – the eight hour time difference almost cancelling out the nine and a half hour flight. It was a lively journey, with plenty of Olympic-bound passengers crammed alongside me in economy.

Many were wearing team colours – Italy, Norway and Russia, to name a few – although it was hard to tell which were competitors and which were coaches, support staff or simply fans! Most were wandering around the cabin, excitedly talking to each other about what to expect.

At Vancouver airport, there was a separate passport control for those of us with official Olympic accreditation. I didn’t have to queue very long. In contrast, Beijing airport had been absolutely manic. The company I worked for then provided a private driver and I was glad of it.

Here in Vancouver, I used a media shuttle bus, laid on by the organisers. The bus driver wasn’t local and I ended up guiding him using a map application on my mobile phone. This is my first time in the city too!

At Beijing ‘08, the airport staff had been so amazed to see an official Olympic accreditation that they insisted on having their picture taken with it. This time, there was less wonderment but just as much friendliness.

Although I believe the Chinese laid on a good Olympic Games eighteen months ago, it was sad to see what happened on the night of the opening ceremony. Thousands of people travelled to the capital even though they had no tickets, or much money.

They were so proud that their country was hosting such a prestigious world event and yet police blocked their path and forced them down side streets with no view of the Bird’s Nest stadium

Vancouver has spent far more on security than it originally planned. I only hope this isn’t a sign that they will try to overly orchestrate these Olympics too. That can suffocate the very spirit which makes the games so unique.

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Filed under:  2010 Winter Games
January 27th, 2010
11:01 AM ET

Can Canada turnaround Olympic jinx?

There’s a dubious distinction hanging over the head of the host nation of next month’s Winter Games. It has to do with the lack of gold medals hanging around the collective necks of former Olympians. Did you know that Canada is the only country to host the Olympics twice and fail to win a single gold medal?

Canadian fans expect gold at this year's Winter Games, will the national program prove fruitful?
Canadian fans expect gold at this year's Winter Games, will the national program prove fruitful?

The national embarrassment caused by coming away from both the Montreal Summer Games in 1976 and the Calgary Winter Games in 1988, without an Olympic title and only 16 combined medals, has made “striking gold” in Vancouver “priority one” for the Canadian Olympic team.

To that end, the “Own the Podium” initiative was born. In the years leading up to the February 12th opening ceremony, Canadian athletes have gone through rigorous training in hopes of doing just that, owning the podiums at the 2010 Games.

The program collected over $110-million in public and private money aimed at getting homegrown Olympians gold medal ready. The United States, Canada’s friendly but fiercely competitive neighbor, took up a similar approach ahead of the Salt Lake City Olympics but with less funding. It resulted in 10 gold medals and 34 overall as the host nation of the 2002 Winter Games trailed only Germany.

Four years ago, Canadian athletes came home from Italy with 24 medals, including 7 gold. So, if one is to believe in the power of momentum, then the signs are looking up for Canada ahead of “their” Games.

The stated goal is a record 35 medals with strong prospects coming from the team sports of men’s and women’s hockey and curling. 19-year-old Patrick Chan, a silver medalist at the World Figure Skating Championships and son of Chinese immigrants, is eyeing gold. So is reigning Olympic mogul skiing champion Jennifer Heil who could get things off to a hot start for Canada by defending her gold medal on the very first day of competition.

But, with big dreams come big pressure and many feel it falls squarely on the shoulders of Canada’s star-studded men’s hockey team which failed to win a medal in Torino.

A similar fate in Vancouver would be crushing to a nation that holds the sport in such high regard.

For a country that fancies itself as a “leader” in winter sports, the Olympics coming back to Canadian soil gives the hosts another chance to show off their considerable talents.

Only this time expect these games, at the very least, to be ‘trimmed in gold’ for Canada.

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Filed under:  2010 Winter Games
January 18th, 2010
09:06 AM ET

Hot for the Winter Games, but left cold by ice hockey

In the second week of February I'll be flying out to cover my first Winter Olympics and you probably will not be surprised to hear that I am excited about attending. However, as a British sports fan and, let's be honest, all sports journalists are fans too, that is not an easy thing to admit.

Can the Canada Olympic ice hockey team, seen here playing Russia (in red) in 2006, triumph as hosts and recruit a new fan in the process?.
Can the Canada Olympic ice hockey team, seen here playing Russia (in red) in 2006, triumph as hosts and recruit a new fan in the process?.

Though as a European there were the skiing greats such as Franz Klammer, Petra Kronberger and Alberto Tomba to celebrate, Britain's medal hopes in cold competition often melted faster than a snowman on a sunbed.

Britain produced Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean, who struck gold and revolutionized figure skating in the 1980s, but also ski jumper Eddie "The Eagle" Edwards, who did not soar into the sky as much as hold his nose, close his eyes and step off the end of the ramp.

That was at Calgary in 1988 – an unbelievable Olympics. Why unbelievable? Because it was the first time Canada had staged the games, 64 years after they began. And because the host nation did not win a single gold medal. I hope the so-called commentator's curse will not affect things here, but I can't see that happening again this year.

And I don't think I am going out on a limb to say the one sport Canada is most keen to triumph in is ice hockey. The men's team missed out on a medal four years ago and it caused a stir, but here is where I need your help dear readers.

I've been a sports broadcaster for nearly two decades and reported on nearly all mainstream events – as well as some weird and wacky ones – but ice hockey is one sport I just don't "get." It's clearly fast and skillful and the players are even allowed to have punch-ups, a bit like rugby union which I enjoy. However, I just can't get excited about it.

Maybe it's as simple as not growing up watching it or that I don't know most of the rules. Icing seems as indecipherable to me as football's offside rule does to my wife. Horse racing used to leave me cold too but a former sports editor loved it, made me learn about it and then I started to appreciate it.

Although ice hockey doesn't float my boat right now it's still the event I'm most looking forward to watching in Vancouver. Why? Well, I'm guessing if the Canadians can't convert me into a fan no-one can.

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Filed under:  2010 Winter Games