Nobody tends to remember where the Winter Olympics were held the way the summer hosts stay in the memory. Sure, most could tell you that Saravejo, Salt Lake City and St Moritz have hosted it, but not so much Grenoble or Cortina d’Ampezzo.
But nobody’s going to forget Sochi, where the 2014 Winter Olympics begin this Friday, in a hurry. The controversy’s seen to that already.
Trouble at home
First off, the Circassians, the indigenous people of the first ever subtropical hosting venue, have demanded the games be cancelled unless the Russian government apologises for the 19th century genocide against their people – a tragedy that they claim has gone unrecognised for over 200 years.
And then there’s the LGBT issue. In June 2013, the Russian government passed a law that bans the distribution of “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” among children – in other words, the promotion of LGBT matters in public – thus making it illegal to hold gay pride events or defend gay rights.
The Russian ministry of justice has accordingly refused to include an LGBT pride house at the event. Krasnodar Krai judge Svetlana Mordovina explained to media that it might “undermine the security of the Russian society and state”.
Over 50 current and former Olympians have stood up in protest at Russia’s discriminatory laws, urging other athletes to support the Principle 6 campaign that encourages the International Olympic Committee and the game’s sponsors to ignore the unjust laws.
Danish sport’s governing body, Danmarks Idrætsforbund (DIF), is also in opposition to Russia’s stance.
“It doesn’t really fit into a modern society to have this kind of legislation towards homosexuals and minorities,” said Morten Rodtwitt, the head of mission at the DIF, who is directly responsible for spearheading Denmark’s bid for medals at both the Summer and Winter Olympics.
“We can only be in opposition to it and don’t really understand why it’s necessary to express these opinions.”
According to Rodtwitt, the Danish competitors have been advised about how to deal with media focus and to “express themselves” – be it in the sporting arena or outside it.
“They can do and say whatever they want and we will support them, but we advise them and give them support when showing them how to deal with media attention,” he explained.
“While there are no openly gay Danish athletes from what we know, we of course don’t ask them. If they want to tell us, they are more than welcome to do it. So it doesn’t make any changes for us. They are Danish athletes either way, and they have earned their right to participate in the winter games on an equal basis.”
A poor record
Controversy aside, the games still promise us a good dose of sporting action to get us through the threadbare winter season.
In a tundra-esque country like Denmark, it is surprising that, in the entire history of the Winter Olympics (which it has attended since 1948), the Danish team has only taken home one medal – a silver medal won in 1998 by the women’s curling team.
Why is it that in a country where snow and ice can be so abundant for up to five months every year, there have been so few athletes dedicated to winter sports? Denmark is a powerhouse in handball, sailing and swimming, and pretty good at football, cycling and rowing, but why does it lag so far behind its Scandinavian neighbours in winter sports?
Geography’s to blame
Rodtwitt has some theories why this has, historically, been the case for Denmark.
“The biggest factor is our geography,” he said. “No mountains and so forth. So it’s no surprise that Denmark’s winter team is smaller than its summer team.”
That’s putting it mildly. In 2010, Denmark sent 18 athletes to the winter games in Vancouver – the highest number it’s ever competed with. Two years later, to the summer games in London, it sent 113. While it won no medals in Vancouver, it won nine in London, including two golds. And to Sochi, Denmark is only sending 12 athletes: two skiers and ten curlers.
Low investment, high interest
Denmark was reasonably close to qualifying for both the ice hockey men’s and women’s competitions, and there are now close to ten home-grown players plying their trade in the NHL. But Rodtwitt thinks the whole skating set-up could be so much better.
“If you consider the facilities that we offer ice skaters throughout the country, they are very limited,” he said.
“That has a big influence on our traditions – there’s not much interest in ice skating amongst youngsters when the clubs are so small and the facilities are more or less non-existent.”
But the interest in the Winter Olympics remains high, claims Rodtwitt.
“Even though there are only 12 Danish athletes going, we actually do think that the public is quite excited about the games, and the media has been very good with its coverage,” said Rodtwitt.
“In winter sports, the Danes definitely follow their Scandinavian neighbours closley, but I don’t think anyone would ever expect Denmark to reach the level of Norway or Sweden – that would be unrealistic.”
Reasons to be confident
Still, Rodtwitt remains optimistic. “If you look at ice hockey developments over the last decade,” he said. “Maybe we were never going to qualify at an international level, but the Ice Hockey League has never been stronger than it is now.”
And maybe there are some medal hopes in the curling, particularly after the European Curling Championships in November, where both the men’s and women’s teams finished fourth.
“In curling, we came up with expectations that the top five would be satisfactory for men, and the top six would be satisfactory for women – both teams have great potential if they do their best, and I’m sure they can reach the medal matches,” Rodtwitt said enthusiastically.
“We might even surprise ourselves with a medal, but the goal is top five, top six – that would leave us with a certain satisfaction.”