Trying to keep your balance in hectic race to the line

Assuming you don’t fall the whole thing is over in a minute and 20 seconds


Eva Samkova has a moustache. Painted on her top lip in red, white and blue, the colours of the Czech flag. When she is asked about why that should be, she shrugs and says, “It’s just a regular moustache.” Matter of fact, she actually seems a bit irritated to be asked about it.

The Irish Times suddenly feels like the oldest, fuddiest, duddiest square on Rosa Khutor. Resolves to start snorting derisively at anyone who doesn’t have a painted-on moustache for the rest of the games. Thinks about kicking it up a notch and painting a moustache on palm of hand to brandish at them. Talk to the ‘tache, you uncool no-moustache-having dorkwads.

Won’t work. Can’t work. Eva Samkova is able to swank about with glorious indifference to the unpainted world because she is now the Olympic snowboard cross champion. The Irish Times , to a frankly comical degree, is not.

There are certain sports at the Winter Olympics that you look at in envy, itching to have a crack at yourself. Snowboard cross is not one of those sports. Six boarders at the top of a hill, a 750m course of 22 jumps and bumps and corners ahead of them, first to the bottom wins. Assuming you don’t fall, the whole thing is over in about a minute and 20 seconds. That, it turns out, is a pretty big assumption.

Fall overtaking
They fall all the time. They fall overtaking, they fall getting overtaken. They fall on landing, they fall in turning. They fall trying to make up for a bad start, they fall out front on their own with no one close to catching them. Just because someone is in the lead doesn’t mean they’re safe. More often than you’d think, it’s a hare-and-tortoise kind of thing.

And sometimes those hares end up hurt. Twice in qualifying here yesterday morning, the action was stopped as fallers were stretchered off the mountain. Coming in the wake of the horrific damage done to the Russian ski-cross athlete Maria Komissarova on Saturday on the same course, it lent a chill to the whole enterprise.

Even as Samkova and the rest were swish-swooshing down the course, Komissarova was recovering from a six-hour operation on a broken back sustained in training the previous day. Norway’s Helene Olafsen and Jacqueline Hernandez of the USA both left the hill on a stretcher as they fell coming down it alone in the seeding round. It wasn’t that there was anything wrong with the course, just the price of doing business in a sport where you’re only ever in partial control of where you’re going.

“It’s the unfortunate thing about the sport,” said British boarder Zoe Gillings afterwards. “Crashes happen. You’ve got to be able to stick to your own plan and not think about that. You hope that the other girls are okay but you can’t let it distract you.

“It’s such a technical sport and you’ve got so many things to think about that the fact that you’re going downhill at 50 miles an hour and going over massive jumps doesn’t really enter your mind. They’ve got to make the jumps big so it looks good on TV.”

And boy does it look good. Snowboard Cross is TV gold, like watching the Wizard of Oz flying monkeys race each other down a mountain. Unlike the other snowboard events, there is no judging, no waiting for the marks at the end. It’s a straight race to the bottom on a surface that can betray any one of them at any stage.

Fell to her knees
The American boarder Lindsay Jacobellis was a mile clear in her semi-final when she came to the second last corner and overbalanced on the soft snow. She would absolutely have won and almost certainly have medalled in the final. But no, she fell to her knees and by the time she got going again, the rest of the field had passed her.

It was the third Olympics in a row that she hadn’t managed to stay upright all the way to the line. It cost her gold in Turin and robbed her of a place in the final in both Vancouver and Sochi.

“It’s how the wheel turns,” she said later. “It just so happened not to work out. It’s hard to accept that.”

Samkova won gold through the apparently simple tactic of staying as far out in front as she could in all her races. While chaos reigned behind her, she stayed upright the whole way to Olympic gold.

“My coach told me it would be the best thing I could do,” she said. “Just be in front of them. It’s crazy. All the time growing up I watched TV at home, just watching summer games and also winter games. And now I’m also a champion. Yeah, that’s crazy.”

And with that, she went about her day. Just a regular moustache-wearing, gold-medal winning Olympic champion. If that’s crazy, then only a bore would wish to be sane.

Anyone got a marker?

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