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1 March 2014

Winter Sports

Tag(s): Sport
I boycotted the Winter Olympics in Sochi. I don’t mean to imply that I turned down the opportunity to compete there; simply that I refused to watch any of it on the box. My reasons are not particularly original. First I was disgusted by the flagrant corruption and the ghastly expenditure, outspending all previous Winter Olympics combined. Second I don’t find much of the sports on offer as particularly entertaining or exciting. They may be exciting for the participants but for the spectator they are unremittingly dull. Most of the races are against the clock so they do not have the same thrill as watching track runners race head-to-head. They keep adding new ways of sliding down a hill, whether it’s on tea trays or slivers of fibreglass it doesn’t make much difference. Then there is the distinct lack of British interest. The BBC is obliged to buy the Winter Olympics because it’s a package deal. They can’t get the Summer Olympics if they don’t also show the Winter Olympics. So they then have to hype it and try and get the home crowd excited about sports, few of which are part of the British tradition. Curling was invented in Scotland so it’s not too surprising that with considerable investment we produce teams of Scots men and women that do quite well. Our other medals came in new-fangled sports where no country has any tradition. I guess the other reason is my own somewhat lacklustre record in winter sports.
Growing up near Manchester we got plenty of rain and in the winter some of this turned to snow. My father was a skilled carpenter and he made an excellent sledge for us. But there were no hills nearby and so to get the best out of this we would have to rely on him to drive us to a suitable hill while we took turns to slide down the hill and trudge up it to start all over again. The sledge spent most of its life being pulled and pushed round our little flat lawn. There was an ice rink a few miles away and I went there a few times but not enough to gain any real skill at this sport.
The first time I came close to skiing was without skis and it almost ended in disaster. I trekked round Mont Blanc with the school in the summer of 1966. We carried all our kit with us on long walks and then pitched camp for a couple of days. From there we would go on “excursions”, i.e. climbs up the mountains without full kit. Descending from one of these we discovered a stretch of snow down which we could slide, standing up, quite well. And then a few of us found an even steeper slope and started to slide down. We were soon out of control and heading for a stone bridge at the bottom which would have cut any of us in two. Fortunately I reached out and crashed into one of my colleagues knocking us both onto solid ground. One chap only got off the snow just before the bottom. This was a portent of what was to follow.
The following year I won an exchange scholarship with the American Field Service (AFS) and spent a year at High School in Minneapolis living with a host family, the Hannahs. As I went through immigration at JFK airport in New York on a swelteringly hot day in August the immigration officer asked me where I was going to live. I told him Minnesota. He laughed and said it would be getting pretty cold up there soon. He was right. Minnesota has exceptionally cold and long winters. I played soccer for the school team and we won the state championship. I was voted the Most Valuable Player and won All-Conference honours. But the season ended in October as the ground became too hard to play on. Everyone switched to a winter schedule of indoor sports like basketball, which I played, ice hockey and wrestling, or outdoor sports like skiing. My host family lived on a lake which froze. It did not fully thaw until late spring. The ice was at least two feet think and so I took up skating again and as I could now skate every day became quite proficient at it. The next logical step was to pick up a hockey stick and try my hand at ice hockey. There was a public rink across the road and every night a pick-up game would start just like pick-up games of football on public pitches in England. Ice hockey is normally six-a-side but these games might be many more than that with all ages. They were great fun.
The Hannahs skied every spring in Aspen, Colorado. Aspen is one of the most glamorous ski resorts in the world. I was welcome to join them if I learned first. So we had some painful lessons in less romantic Midwest resorts in places like Hardscrabble, Wisconsin. By the time I reached Aspen I had achieved a respectable snowplough with the neighbours’ skis.
By the fourth day I had graduated to the Intermediate slopes. I was tracking an accomplished lady skier. I accelerated to pass a ski school stretched across the hill. Suddenly the lady in front of me stopped. I hadn’t mastered this part and was faced with three choices. I could go straight on and hit her. I rejected this option. I could go below and accelerate even more. I rejected this one too. So I tried to go back up hill and found myself heading for the trees. My right ski passed neatly between two youthful trees right up to the boot where it snapped off. Amazingly I was fine but again my pride was deeply scarred. I had to wade down the mountain in four feet of snow.
I did not strap on a ski again for thirteen years until I was back in the Rockies with an AFS friend who was a keen cross-country skier. I was amazed how fast I could go and was soon speeding along Sun Valley, Idaho. Then I saw a snowman. I decided to charge it, as a knight would joust with his lance. I stabbed it with my ski pole only to find that the snowman was an iceman. At first I thought my hand was just bruised but nine days later it was still black and blue. I took it to the office nurse who took one look and said it was broken. This was confirmed in an X-ray. The break was in the joint of my little finger and so I could move it. I wore it in a splint for two months and, as it was my right hand, needed to have my left handed signature notarised so that my cheques would be honoured.
Later that year I had migrated to Chile where the skiing is also said to be good. I visited Farellones, the nearest ski resort to Santiago, with friends and was persuaded to try my hand once more. They had the kind of ski lifts that work on the inertia principle and pull you along the ground. Unfortunately my reel paid out but did not pull back in and I found myself falling some thirty feet down the mountain. That was the end of my skiing career.
When I joined NXT the Chairman, Farad Azima was a very keen and accomplished skier. We had just completed a joint venture with DERA (now QinetiQ) to run its speech technology unit and Farad wanted to welcome the 13 scientists in the unit. He took them all to Verbier in Switzerland where he had a chalet as a way to make them feel welcome. I joined them but declined Farad’s invitation to “strap on the planks”. He later kindly offered me the chance to take my wife and stay in his chalet in the summer. It was a very generous gesture and I love the mountains. One day we took the ski lift up the mountain and enjoyed the air and the views. Then we walked down. That was a mistake as the mountain was so steep that it stretched all the muscles in the backs of our legs. We couldn’t walk for days. Even in summer the skiing got me.

Copyright David C Pearson 2014 All rights reserved


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