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This is insane

Like my co-Samizdatista Jonathan Pearce, and like Mark Holland of Blognor Regis, I have also been watching the Winter Olympics. In truth I find the winter Olympics to rather more fun than the summer Olympics, partly because it is genuinely a more lighthearted event with more of a party atmosphere than the summer games, and partly because power in the world is rather turned upside down. (Here is a competitor from Norway – he must be good. Here is someone from the United States of America – he will be mediocre). Mostly though, I think it is the simple insanity of many of the events that I find most enjoyable. Winter sports lead to extremes of human achievement that (a) one is amazed that they are possible, but not so much as (b) one wonders why anyone would actually do this, and how the sport was invented in the first place, for surely the first twelve people to try it must have ended up killing themselves.

Mark wonders just how Britain has a luge team, or as he puts it…

Anyway, I get to wondering how on earth a chap from Pinner decides to take up the sport. I mean, say for instance I’d been so inspired by the top luging at the Calgary Olympics that I’d immediately thought, “That’s the event for me!” where am I supposed to go from there? If I’d have gone to my games teacher, Mr “Manly” Stanley, and said, “you know how this football and rugby doesn’t interest me at all, well instead I fancy taking up sliding down an icy tube at 130 km/h whilst lying on a glorified tea tray”. What’s he supposed to do? Phone up the local British Luge Federation affiliated club? That’s not going to happen is it.

Of course, in Australia, the answer as to how and why people take these things up, is that there is an official taxpayer funded organisation that encourages them to do it. At the winter olympics, Australia tends to specialise in something called the “Womens aerials”. For those who have not watched aerials (one of the events in a wider school of insanity called “freestyle skiing”), it involves skiing down a slope, up a ramp, doing three backwards somersaults and a double twist, and then landing on the snow on your head and breaking your neck.

Actually you are not supposed to land on your head and break your neck. You are supposed to land upright on skis and continue down the mountain. Landing on your head and breaking your neck does appear to happen relatively frequently, however. Again, the question of why anyone would do this does come to mind, and the question of why the Australian taxpayer pays for it comes to mind even more. And to answer this, we have to go back to the 1976 summer olympics in Montreal. For the first time in a very long time, Australia won no gold medals. This was widely perceived as a national catastrophe. Government ministers descriped it as “disgraceful”, and it was generally assumed that the rest of the world was laughing at us with derision. (I am assuming that this is pretty much the first that any of our non-Australian readers have heard of it, but if by any chance you were laughing with derision at Australia in 1976 for this reason, I would like to hear about it). It was decided by the federal government that something had to be done about this, and a state funded organisation named the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) was set up to indentify potential Olympic medal winners and coach them to gold medal winning glory.

And at its stated aim, this seemed to work. Australia won a few gold medals in each of 1980, 1984, and 1988, and we were generally happy.

However, something happened in the world in 1989. The cold war ended. Suddenly, many experienced sports coaches with experience in running state funded success at all costs sports academies were out of work. While the United States and West Germany even did their best to poach the best scientists and engineers from the former communist bloc, Australia poached many fine East German sports coaches, and invited them to do what they had previously done best. Like East Germany and the Soviet Union, Australia was interested mainly in appearing as high up the medal table as possible, and didn’t care so much in what sports or events the medals were won. They got down to the old East German trick of identifying sports and events where the competition was weak, an concentrating on those events. (One side effect of this both in East Germany and Australia was a greater concentration on women’s events, where there was often less depth in the fields). Plus, they established an incentive scheme in which sports which won Olympic medals received increased (taxpayer) funding and those which did not had their funding cut. (In particular, Australia specialises in weird track cycling events too obscure for anyone capable of winning a stage in the Tour de France from having the slightest interest in. Like most cycling teams, the Australians have had their share of drug scandals as well).

At its stated aim of winning lots of gold medals, this scheme was hugely successful. In the summer games, Australia went from 3 gold medals in 1988 to 7 in 1992 to 9 in 1996 to 16 in 2000 (possibly boosted by home town advantage) to an utterly outrageous 17 in Athens in 2004. (In the last two games, Australia managed to finish higher than all nations other than the United States, Russia, and China). Rather than giving Australians the chance to cheer a few times in a couple of weeks, the AIS had managed to give us an East German like procession of medals. The funding system had grown out of control in terms of total budget, and the incentive sheme had led to a concentration of funding on a smaller number of more successful sports.

And, while Australian does contain mountains with ski resorts, and while substantial numbers of Australians do ski recreationally, winter sports are not something we traditionally devote a great deal of time to. However, the incentive scheme of the AIS applies to winter sports just as it does to summer sports. The same process of identifying sports with weak fields in which we might win medals went on, and one of the events that came up was the women’s aerials. This actually requires similar skills to certain gymnastic events, and the required skiing skills are only moderate. As the AIS already had a gymnastic program, retired female gymnasts were encouraged to take up skiing. And it worked, Australia produced a number of fine woman aerial skiers, which culminated in Alisa Camplin winning the gold medal in the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002. (Just as an observation, in her career Camplin has suffered a broken collarbone, broken hand, separated shoulder, torn Achilles tendon and nine concussions). As this was successful under the incentive scheme, funding for women’s aerials (and winter sports in general) was of course increased at the AIS, and Australia once again hopes to win medals in the event this year.

Thus a government program expands, even one devoted to encouraging women to do extremely dangerous reverse backflips in freezing conditions. Really.

Update: Someone in the comments has asked me just how much money exactly the Australian government spends on this. Perusal of Treasury documents gives a budget of $111 million Australian dollars (at current exchange rates that is $US82m or £47m – the Australian population is about a third of the British population and about one fifteenth of the US population) for “Excellence in sports performances by Australians” (ie elite athlete development) for the 2005-6 financial year. There is also some money spent by state governments on similar programs, but the federal expenditure makes up the bulk of it. If you (generously) assume that Australia wins 20 Olympic gold medals (winter and summer) every four years, and the budget is $110m a year, then the gold medals are costing the taxpayer $22 million each. To me that seems a lot.

22 comments to This is insane

  • Yes and some of those AIS Amazons have deeper voices and more chest hair then I do.

  • Colin

    How much funding are we talking about? Watching these competitions on TV is really entertaining. I would much prefer this to most state funded art and ‘culture’, most of which is designed specifically to ‘challenge’ me.

  • Midwesterner

    (a) one is amazed that they are possible, but not so much as (b) one wonders why anyone would actually do this, and how the sport was invented in the first place, for surely the first twelve people to try it must have ended up killing themselves.

    Mark wonders just how Britain has a luge team

    Funny, an Aussie wondering how Britain has a luge team. Back in the frozen backlands of my memory, I thought I had heard that sport was the fault of the British in the first place.

    I found this(Link) you might want to read.

  • Midwesterner

    BTW, that was intended to be humorous. It didn’t look that way when I re-read it.

  • Millie Woods

    Well many years ago when I was a lot more agile than I am today I decided to toboggan down a slope standing up. I claim as a result that I was one of the early pioneers of snowboarding. That’s how it all happens – like people who climb Everest because it’s there – you do these nutty things because you’re young and invincible and why not.

  • Pete

    If you ever go to a resort which has a ski jump, walk up the steps at the side just to get a sense of how appallingly big and steep it is. I once sledged down the landing ramp of one, and it was a profoundly terrifying experience.

    What I like about downhill is that despite its endearingly 70s image, it’s still far more “extreme” than any “extreme sport” pursued by hooded-sweatshirt-wearing, Pepsi-Max-sponsored spotty youths. Although I realise that makes me sound like a real old git.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    The Brits have played a big part in developing Alpine tourism, such as rich eccentrics involved in pioneering skiing holidays. The Brits have long had a fascination with the moutains from the moment that modern mass travel became possible due to railways and rising affluence of the middle class.

    The Brits have tended to do better at tobagganing, the luge, bobsleigh and skating than in downhill skiing, still dominated by the French, Austrians, Swiss, Germans, Italians and north American nations. Scotland has some decent skiers although snow in Scotland is not always very reliable.

    The main problem for skiers these days is that the slopes can be very crowded in places like France, particularly during the school holidays. One ambition of mine is to go skiing somewhere like Colorado, free of drunken Brits.

  • I’ve never forgotten Franz Klammer’s gold-medal donwhill effort at Innsbruck in ’76. Every second of it was horrifying: he never once looked to me like he was going to make it down in once piece. It’s still one of the most spectacular human efforts I ever saw.

  • Pete

    Lots of drunken Brits in Colorado, Jonathan. Did you know that Brits make up the largest body of out-of-state visitors to the resorts there?

    Plenty of Brit-free resorts around though – I’ve never seen another Brit where we go in France. Just book direct in a resort you’ve never heard of.

    My Granny was one of those pioneers, and sneered dismissively at the concepts of flattened pistes and lifts. Oddly, the accident rates in skiing haven’t declined as much as you’d expect from the days where any wrong move could snap your whole leg off – perhaps predictably, the advent of miraculously clever safety bindings has simply pushed people to attempt increasingly stupid feats of daring. Which is awful, yet also strangely admirable.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Pete, good advice. The harder the ski difficulty, the less likely the bloated Brits will be there. I went to Morzine a few years ago and it was great. The Brits tend to go for Val D’Isere because of the nightlife. The Austrian resorts are good fun but lower altitude, so the snow can be less reliable. I am told Italy is good fun and quite cheap.

    I’d love to ski in the Rockies although I am getting married this year so my finances will probably not stand it for a year or so.

  • Well said. I totally agree with you. The point you are making here does make sense.

  • Verity

    The gold medal downhill effort of Franz Klammer (Piste Be upon Him).

  • Verity, that’s brilliant.

  • RAB

    Congratulations Johnathan! and to your intended.
    Keep up the sking tips, my wife loves sking.
    It does seem, despite the lack of snow, that we Brits invented a disproportionate amount of winter sports, out of sheer boredom cooped up in TB clinics for the aristocracy in the 1880’s, in the Alps.
    “I say Carruthers, I’m bored with reading Shelley,” cough cough (spits blood) “What say we borrow some of those planks the natives are wearing to stop them sinking into the snow, and have some fun! Let’s see what a bit of a slope will do to them!”
    And on it went even down to the tea trays that are the Lugue.
    Yes utterly insane. That’s why it’s certain we Brits invented it!

  • HJHJ

    I was well aware of the Australian approach to Olympic sports (and the origin of this approach). Personally, I think it’s madness. It means that Australians concentrate largely on less competitive (more obscure) sports and those which award a disproportionately high number of medals, such as swimming. In the truly competitive sports, Australia’s ‘success’ is modest.

    What is the point of this? I love the Olympics but who cares how many medals a country wins – it’s the quality of individual medals, performances and competitors that counts.

    Unfortunately, we in the UK seem to be heading down a similar route with ever increasing state funding in pursuit of a high medal count.

    On the other hand, it is true to say that in many Olympic sports it is difficult, if not impossible, for athletes to win medals now without external sources of funding. My preferred solution, given that athletes are not paid directly for their Olympic performances, is for a large proportion of TV revenue derived from each country to be paid to the Olympic associations of the country concerned for them to spend on Olympic sports. This will incentivise them to invest in sports that are watched in the country (because more viewers = more TV revenue) as well as just those which can provide easy medals.

  • A popular Austrian evening pastime, after you’ve been skiing or snowboarding all day, is to go to a pub some way up the mountain, get totally pissed, then toboggan back down again.

    I can only assume it’s even more terrifying when you’re sober

  • Ted Schuerzinger

    Have the Brits overtaken the High Tatras yet?

  • Pete

    I’ve actually been skiing in the High Tatras (Stary Smokovec) in 1991. Skiing was, ahem, limited though, with a slow mountain railway being the main lift and the road back down being the main piste. But hey – we lived like kings at a £6-a-night hotel and ate and drank everything on the menu.

    Warmest congrats, Jonathan. That’ll be even better than the powdery glades of Copper Mountain.

  • Joshua

    What is the point of this? I love the Olympics but who cares how many medals a country wins – it’s the quality of individual medals, performances and competitors that counts.

    Everyone, unfortunately. Two of the most childish displays of excessive nationalism I’ve seen in my life were in Japan and South Korea in 1998 and 2002 respectively. Especially in Korea. The press resports of the Ohno (non-)incident were beyond the pale. Pretty much lost my taste for the Olympics after all that.

    It’s one thing in football/soccer, where the World Cup is meant to be a nationalist bloodletting, better-this-than-actual-war kind of thing. In the Olympics you sort of hope for a full focus on sport – but of course, what you get instead is a lot of corruption and sleaziness. I’d just as soon they dropped the national anthems at the medal ceremony and handed them out individually.

  • JSAllison

    On the subject of tobogganing, has anyone, anywhere, at any time, ever managed to still be seated in one in an upright postion when it coasts to a stop? Every one I’ve ever seen either rolled, flipped or ran into something immovable and thus forcibly decamped its contents. Not that this is a bad thing though I suspect that significant quantities of drink might be both a causative factor and a means of hopefully reducing the severity of the effects of impact…

  • HJHJ


    I wasn’t complaining about the nationalistic element of the Olympics – just the focus on the number of medals as opposed to the quality of the performances.

    When I feel like being cheered up and inspired, I put on the video of the British men’s (rowing) eight from the Olympic final in Sydney. The way they took that race by the scruff of its neck and combined perhaps the finest technical rowing I have ever seen with sheer aggression and guts against nominally more powerful crews is something unforgettable. They looked at death’s door for the last 500 metres, but by then they had done such damage to the other crews that (as Garry Herbert put it) they just “ran out of lake” in which to catch them. It was one of the all time greatest performances in any Olympic sport.

    For me that is what the Olympics is all about – you can forget medal counts in ridiculous winter Olypmics activities in which judges opinions are required to pronounce on who won.

  • David

    partly because power in the world is rather turned upside down. (Here is a competitor from Norway – he must be good. Here is someone from the United States of America – he will be mediocre.)

    I’ve had a theory that the United States dissipated most of the world’s goodwill from 9/11 during the 2002 World Cup and Winter Olympics. For decades most any country could thrash the U.S. in football. When sport commentators in the 1970s and 1980s refered to the U.S. as a “slumbering giant” I always got the impression they, and their listeners, sincerely hoped the U.S. would remain a “slumbering” giant. That way they could get a thrill when their national team crushed them. It was a small way at getting back at a country that always won at everything else. Then in 2002, the U.S. won the medal count at the Winter Olympics. A few months later, it went to the World Cup quarterfinals and took Germany to the wall before losing on a set piece header. When anti-American hysteria began sweeping the world later that year I began to wonder if it had less to do with a potential war in Iraq and more with resentment caused by the feeling that the U.S. had cheated people of the thrill of seeing it humbled on the pitch or in curling.

    Of course, it was just an off the wall idea. Thank you Michael for confirming that my theory has a nugget of truth to it.