Sonia O’Sullivan: falling for the icy slopes of Pyeongchang

Introducing indoor athletic events would heighten our interest in Winter Olympics

I was trying not to fall so easily in love with the Winter Olympics, although it soon got the better of me. Even in the still balmy Melbourne summer there is something uniquely exciting about events on the icy slopes and frozen arenas of Pyeongchang.

Around the world, and despite all the perceived tainting of the Olympic brand, it still attracts a huge audience. And it does feel like there is still something sporting at the heart of it all.

So each evening, helped by the fact South Korea is just a few hours behind, it’s become our source of regular entertainment. You never quite know what to expect, and there is always some level of education and knowledge of a new sport gained.

It’s not quite like the summer Olympics, where you’re watching sports that most people have tried at some stage in their lives, and you know you soon fall into a familiar pattern, the first week dominated by the swimming, and the second week by the track and field.


For most people, the Winter Olympics is a collection of sports they only tune into once every four years. Most folk will also try to carry on like it doesn’t even impact their lives but, just like the summer version, the Olympic rings are difficult to miss when the Games are taking place.

There’s a small spattering of coverage here in the newspapers and TV stations that have paid for the rights are obligated to bring these sports into our living room throughout the day, and particularly in the evening, when you are checking in to see what’s in store for the night.

The moguls, the half pipe, the luge and speed skating are some of the events that have stood out for me this week. The speed skating relay is quite amusing, although I have yet to figure out the need for the luge with one man lying atop the other. I find myself getting trapped as the hours slip by closer to bedtime, then increasingly hooked and trying to stay up just a bit longer to see what happens next, especially when the medals are close to being decided.

The short track and long distance speed skating are never short of drama. There is very little room for passing and one wrong move in a split second can result in a penalty disqualification, the athlete forced to leave the track, their Olympic dream over for another four years.

There is no discussion or time delay: a decision is made, and either a race restart or straight on to the next heat. It must be the only event I’ve seen where the athletes are ushered on to the track with such speed and zero time delay since running with Villanova at the annual Penn Relays carnival in Philadelphia.

The Penn Relays are run off in similar fashion, so many races for high school and college athletes that there is a pen where athletes have to wait in a holding zone, ready to be ushered onto the track as soon as the last race is run and final athlete clears the track.

Indoor running

There has been talk of introducing cross country running to the Winter Olympics, an idea supported by many athletes, and also IAAF president Sebastian Coe. It sounds like a good idea, to give more opportunities for distance runners to compete in the Olympics.

Only when you consider the reality and weigh things up it doesn’t really look very practical. Maybe if you think of the Sochi Games four years ago, where the snow was not so prominent and the temperatures more spring-like.

Then you see what it’s like in Pyeongchang, with sub-zero temperatures, and the layers of clothes that the athletes are wearing as they stand atop the ski slopes, you’d have to question the practicality of running 10km cross country through the snow-covered fields.

It doesn’t really fit the terrain, and I can’t imagine temperatures like that being very attractive for athletes to race around in. It’s one thing to train in the ice and snow, or maybe occasionally an event will be staged on a course with a layer of snow. But this is not by definition cross country running.

Besides, when watching the indoor skating and ice hockey and curling it got me thinking that it might make more sense to bring indoor running to the Winter Olympics.

Next month, the World Indoor Championships take place in Birmingham, that event staged every two years. I think it would be a novel idea to introduce some of those indoor events as a sport at the Winter Olympics.

Most winter sports are short-lived in the memory of the general public: we are told about the current world champions and world rankings for the various Olympic sports, but this is news to the general public. From one Winter Olympics to the next the amount of press coverage is minimal at best.

Maybe it’s different if you live in a snow-covered country such as Norway, Sweden or Switzerland, and some parts of the US. But for others snow is a welcome novelty, that more typically cancels sporting events as opposed to being embraced as part of winter life.

Speed skating

Still, there are some countries that do very well despite their lack of ice and snow. The Dutch are hugely successful on the speed skating rink. So much so that one American commentator remarked on this as they entered the opening ceremony, reckoning it was all down to the canals in Amsterdam that freeze over in winter, with the Dutch are known to don their skates as a means of transport to work each day. It’s hardly the likely explanation yet the remark was broadcast live on NBC across the country – perhaps leading some Americans to believe it was fact.

Meanwhile the Dutch have revealed their speed skating is down to Olympic-sized investment and professional development of speed skating, with 20 long course speed skating rinks across the country, plus plenty more ice rinks, to introduce the sport at a young age and develop the talent.

It makes you wonder could Ireland possibly do better. We’re excited to be sending a team and be represented, but still the expectation is low, as if taking part is enough. Again, we know very little about the team members or their sports, apart from minute coverage in the lead up and qualification period, before they all disappear again for another four years.

These winter events will always be a niche sport in a country like Ireland, with no history or tradition to fall back on.

But maybe like rowing, or like what we’ve seen with cycling in some countries closer to home, we could invest in these more technical events and maybe someday find ourselves chasing that elusive Winter Olympics medal. Given it’s unlikely that indoor athletics will break into the Winter Olympic schedule it might be our only hope.