Comment: fame game puts focus on Olympics

First published in News Watford Observer: Photograph of the Author by

As a rule, reality TV programmes leave me cold. My own reality is too tiring without having to worry about the ups and downs of people I don’t even know, and I tend to think people who are daft and desperate enough to enter the Big Brother house deserve everything that comes their way.

The celebrity versions are rarely any better. There was a time when the word celebrity meant great and respected, someone who had been celebrated, but its meaning has been on the move for decades now.

These days, a celebrity is simply someone who’s famous, regardless of whether there is any value or merit to their fame.

There are so many celebrities now there simply wouldn’t be time to celebrate them all.

It's not a new phenomenon – back in the 1960s the cultural historian Daniel Boorstin defined a celebrity as someone who is “known for his well-knownness”. Famous for being famous, as we tend to say now.

The Only Way is Essex, Geordie Shore, Made in Chelsea and, of course, Big Brother – there is a whole lineage of programmes now that cost little to make but attract big audiences. And in the process, they make celebrities of non-entities.

Now, though, I’ve found a reality programme I actually like. It’s called The Jump, and one of its main attractions is it combines two fantastically unlikely things – minor celebrities and ski jumping.

If you haven’t seen the programme – and you really are cheating yourself if you’ve missed it – the idea is to take such cultural luminaries as 1980s singer Sinitta or cricket hero Darren Gough and ask them to take part in a succession of winter sports.

They’re ranked in order of how well they coped with the skiing or sliding challenge and the two celebrities who come bottom of the table then have to take part in a ski jumping face-off.

Whoever jumps furthest stays in the programme. The loser goes home.

It is a frankly ludicrous programme, which reached its lowlight when Amy Childs, once of The Only Way is Essex, was paralysed with fear at the top of the ski jump.

While her jump-off rival Sinitta conquered her nerves to basically fall off the end of the smallest jump, Ms Childs was left stranded at the top as the closing credits ran, apparently doomed to go from being frozen with terror to simply being frozen.

What I like most about this programme is not the humiliation of minor celebrities, although that’s a pretty good reason to watch, but rather the focus it puts upon winter sports.

In just a few days time, the Olympic Winter Games will begin in Russia and I shall be watching with rapt attention.

The Winter Olympics is one of my favourite events in the world of sport. It’s a magnificent mixture of bravery and style, or technical brilliance and wonderful spectacle.

Four years ago, I was lucky enough to be in Vancouver for the Winter Games.

I saw Amy Williams winning gold in the skeleton (that’s the one where you slide down a track, head-first, lying on a small sled), I was there when our bobsleigh teams crashed and also watched the speed skaters flying round at unfeasible pace.

I marvelled at the downhill skiers and the snowboarders, with their precision, balance and bravery, and the elegance of the figure skaters.

These truly are exceptional athletes, and I don’t think they get the attention they deserve.

We are, after all, a nation that is rather short of snow-covered mountains. There are no sliding tracks here, no world-class skiing facilities and precious few places for our skaters to practice.

We might not win many medals at the Winter Olympics, but the fact we're taking part at all, and sometimes pushing for a place on the podium, is remarkable.

This time around, there’s a Watford man in the thick of it. The performance director of Britain’s bobsleigh team is a chap called Gary Anderson (pictured below), who was born in Watford, went to school in the town, still lives in Hertfordshire and remains an ardent Watford football fan.

He’s also one of the most successful sporting coaches in the country at the moment, having led a resurgence in the fortunes of Britain’s bobsleigh teams to the extent that the men's four-man team has an outside chance of a medal.

If they get anywhere near the top three, it would be a stupendous achievement and Gary will deserve a decent slice of the credit.

He’s been round the sporting houses, working in football, judo, curling and others before his arrival in bobsleigh, and he carries with him the disarming air of a man who just wants people to do as well as they can. The impressive bit is how he makes that aspiration come true.

Gary’s trick, I think, is to make people enjoy their work, to sweat buckets but to do that with a smile on their face.

He’s all about a positive trajectory – about ensuring the team is always getting that bit better, and never deteriorating.

Come to think of it, we should probably have taken him out of the stands at Vicarage Road and put him in charge.

Sochi is not the obvious place to hold the Winter Olympics. For a start, it’s cost something like £30bn to get it into the right shape, making these the most expensive Winter Olympic Games in history.

For another, Russia’s poor record on human rights in general, and its attitude towards gay people, has also raised doubts about the nation’s suitability to host the Games.

I’m reluctant to allow politics to trespass too much. You cannot divorce sport from politics, of course, and certainly now when President Putin has invested such obscene amounts of cash in using these Games as a tool for impressing the world.

Equally, though, the athletes and coaches who arrive in Sochi do so to fulfil dreams that have nothing to do with the political ideology and everything to do with sporting excellence.

So I cross my fingers for Lizzy Yarnold and Shelley Rudman in the skeleton, for our men’s and women’s curling teams, for Elise Christie in the short track skating and, of course, for Gary Anderson and his bobsleigh squad.

All could win medals; all know they are up against formidable opposition from around the world, mostly from countries that actually have snow and ice and mountains.

And yet, being British, still we persevere, against the odds.

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