US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley
US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley

Members of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics Organizing Committee must be pulling their hair out.

On December 5, the IOC banned the Russia national team from the upcoming winter games. In reaction to losing representatives from one of the biggest and best national teams, president of the organizing committee, Lee Hee-beom, was quoted as saying, he didn’t expect the IOC “to go this far.”

Then on December 8, U. N. Ambassador from the United States, Nikki Haley, apparently raised the possibility of Team USA declining their invitation to the PyeongChang Winter Olympics due to fears that North Korea will create such an environment of uncertainty about safety that Americans would not be safe in South Korea.

Haley’s comments prompted perceived backtracking by officials as White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders was quoted as saying that “no official decision has been made” about America not going to PyeongChang.

What’s interesting is how the press kind of over-reacted to Haley’s comments, in my view, reading a bit too much into the tea leaves. According to SB Nation, Haley’s quote was actually a very indirect reference to the Olympics.

Haley saying that U.S. involvement is an “open question” was part of a larger quote — one that could hint at the topic never being raised in the first place.

“There’s an open question. I have not heard anything about that, but I do know in the talks that we have — whether it’s Jerusalem or North Korea — it’s about, how do we protect the US citizens in the area?”

By saying “I have not heard anything about that” Haley’s answer seems to imply that no discussion is taking place on whether the U.S. will skip the games. Her saying it’s an “open question” is making the rounds, however, and that’s what people are picking up on.

Earlier in the month, National Security Advisor to the US government, H. R. McMaster said, “Yes” to the question if Americans should feel safe about going to the Winter Olympics in Korea next year. But one word alone from McMaster will not diminish the fear.

McMaster tweet

In recent months, France, Austria and Germany have also expressed concerns about safety in Korea, and raised the possibility of not going to the Winter Games in February. And with Russia out and America hinting at an exit as well, the PyeongChang is looking, quite possibly, at winter of discontent.

Ski Jumper Sarah Hendrickson Takes Flight on the Sleeping Giant
Ski Jumper Sarah Hendrickson Takes Flight on the Sleeping Giant

To the untrained eye, ski jumping is essentially finding the courage to go screaming down a mountain on skis at 90 kilometers per hour with winter winds whipping your face, staring down the possibility of a crash of cataclysmic proportions. Think the opening of ABC’s Wide World of Sports program, and Jim McKay’s famous line “agony of defeat.”

To the trained eye, the ability to control your anxiety, launch into the air explosively, manipulate your body and skis into the most efficient aerodynamic form possible and maintain it, and of course, sticking the landing requires considerable preparation and training. The slightest variation to the optimal flying technique, and the wind will throw your body out of form with sometimes ugly ramifications.

Wikipedia was kind enough to map out the differences in ski jump technique over the years. To understand them visually, I identified video that represents that technique as closely as possible.

Kongsberger Technique: Named after the town – Kongsberg, Norway – in which this technique was created, “the technique was characterized by the athlete’s upper body being bent at the hip, with arms extended out front past the head and skis held parallel to each other. Sometimes the arms would be waved or ‘flapped’ around vigorously in a bird-like manner.” As you can see in the video below of ski jumping from the 1930s, there was definitely a lot of flapping of arms.

 

 

Windisch / Dascher Techniques: These two seem quite similar to me, at least the way they are described. The biggest distinction between them and the Kongsberger is that the arms and hands are no longer out front and moving, but instead are extended back towards the hips, and held still. In this video of ski jumping in the 1950s, you can see the ski jumpers are making the transition from Kongsberger to Windisch: half have their arms extended out front like Superman, which is the Kongsberger technique, with the other half with their hands back near their hips.

 

V-Style Technique: This is the style you see today, the skis no longer parallel. The ski tips, instead, or spread out in a “V” shape, creating more aerodynamic lift.

 

You can actually see the difference the V-Style technique makes in this mock up at the Sapporo Winter Sports Museum.

The Salchow – You hear it every Winter Games, and you still can’t figure out what it is.

For non-skaters like myself, quickly grasping the differences between a Lutz, a Salchow or an Axel is not easy. Fortunately, there are a lot of videos that show you what the moves look like. The Olympic Channel has a great 6-minute video on the evolution of the Salchow jump called “How the Original Salchow Changed Figure Skating.”

First, it’s pronounced “sal – cow.” For short, skaters will call it a “Sal.”

Second, it’s a skating technique where you jump off the back inside of the back foot, rotate, and then land on the back outside edge of the other foot. This is distinct from the Axel technique, which is a jump from the front skate.

Third, the first person to demonstrate this jump was a Swedish man named Ulrich Salchow, all the way back in 1909.

Ulrich Salchow

As you can see in the Olympic Channel video, skaters have been taking the Salchow to new heights for over a century. The first person to achieve a double Salchow was another Swede, Gillis Grafström, who would win gold in singles figure skating in three straight Winter Olympics. Decades later, at the 1956 Cortina d’Ampezzo Winter Games, American Ronnie Robertson, was the first ever to land a triple salchow, on his way to a silver medal in singles figure skating.

By the end of the ’80s, skaters had mastered the triple, symbolized by Brian Boitano‘s gold-medal winning performance at the 1988 Calgary Olympics. At those same games, silver medalist, Kurt Browning attempted to shock and awe with a quadruple salchow. He fell to the ice in the attempt, but he started the obsession of the 1990s – the perfect quad. Skaters would attempt, but end up under-rotating, landing on two skates, or simply crashing to the ice.

But skaters were oh-so-close. Many were hitting the quad perfectly in practice, but it took Russian skater, Ilia Kulik, at the 1998 Nagano Games, to finally land a quadruple salchow in Olympic competition, earning him gold in the singles figure skating competition.

Ilia Kulik
Ilia Kulik winning gold at the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics

For nearly 20 years, the quadruple salchow has become a standard technique for the very best. So the question begs – will we see a quintuple salchow in our lifetime? According to this Scientific American article, entitled “Is the Quintuple Jump in Figure Skating Physically Possible?” the short answer is, um…maybe.

A biochemist from the University of Delaware, James Richards says no. “The quad is the physical limit. To do a quint, we would have to have somebody built like a pencil, and they can’t get much smaller than they already are.”

But Tom Zakrajsek, a figure skating coach, believes it is, but with considerable risk to the physical health of the skater. To quote the Scientific American article:

Still, Zakrajsek is confident that certain skaters have the body build and skills to achieve it. But even so, many coaches don’t allow skaters to attempt the quintuple due to the risks associated with falling while spinning at such high speeds and with such force. Even falling on a quadruple jump can take a serious toll on the body, Zakrajsek said. “In a quadruple jump, you are landing with seven times your body weight,” Zakrajsek said. “That is a lot of force. When they fall on a jump like that, some say it feels like their intestines end up in their throat.”

1956 Olympics in Stockholm equestrian events

The Stockholm Olympics were held in July, 1912, the fifth Olympiad of the modern era.

But there was also a Stockholm Olympics in June, 1956, and only equestrian events were held at this particular event. Why? Because the actual host of the 1956 Olympiad was Melbourne, and Australia is famous for its tight quarantine control, a custom that goes back decades.

According to Wikipedia, Australia “had a strict six-month pre-shipment quarantine on horses,” and authorities insisted from 1953 that they would not allow horses enter Australia, even for the Olympics, which were to be held four months later, from November 22 to December 8. So, in 1954, the IOC decided that instead of cancelling the equestrian events, they moved them to Stockholm, Sweden instead.

As a result, the 1956 Olympiad was the first and last to be held in two different hemispheres in the same year, and 1956 saw posters that featured two different cities. The one above is the equestrian part of the 1956 Olympics in Stockholm, while the one below is the standard poster for the Melbourne Games.

1956 Melbourne Olympics

Interestingly, Sweden won gold in half of the equestrian events: individual dressage, team dressage and individual eventing. One might think home field advantage made the difference. Maybe it did, although Sweden dominated the equestrian events at the 1952 Summer Olympics in neighboring Helsinki, Finland.

As is explained in the book, Success and Failure of Countries at the Olympic Games, by Danyel Reiche, success in equestrian events is directly correlated to a nation’s GDP – “Out of the 419 Olympic medals, 329 (78.5%) in equestrian were won by wealthy countries with a GDP above US$30,000.” In addition, Reiche points out that in the case of Sweden, “equestrian sports is a ‘folk sport’,” which may explain why Stockholm was selected as the venue on such short notice.

1912_Summer_Olympics_poster

Going au natural was considered not only natural, but beautiful, in ancient Greece. The nude athlete is a powerful image in Greece. It is said that when a runner named Orsippus of Megara lost his loincloth in the midst of a sprint, he was said to run even faster, gaining him victory and fame. Running naked became a competitive advantage.

As archaeologists like Heinrich Schliemann, who uncovered the site of ancient Troy in the late 19th century, captured the imagination of people the world over, the thinking and customs of the ancient Greece became idealized. The nude athlete in particular was de rigeur in posters advertising the early Olympic Games.

1920 antwerp olympics poster

In fact, from 1912 to 1936, the male body was the main feature of the Olympic poster, with the 1912 Stockholm Olympic poster being the most, how shall we say, intriguing, showing that there’s a lot you can do with a ribbon. And after World War I ravaged Europe, the Olympics came to Antwerp, Belgium in 1920, where the poster also employed a fully nude man, private parts covered this time by a swirling towel.

1924 Paris Olympics poster

The French were not so revealing, but the poster for the 1924 Paris Olympics did emphasize the bare chests and midriffs of virile young men ready to go into athletic battle. The poster for the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics was less suggestive, but still featured a yearning half-nude man.

Then, there are the prudish Americans, who featured a man of chiseled musculature, but whose torso was covered by a white t-shirt.

The Germans in 1936, the Brits in 1948 and the Finns in 1952 all did variations on a theme with the male body, until the Aussies came along and changed the look and feel dramatically. They removed the human, and replaced it with, what looks like a card, or invitation to the Olympic Games.

Nude guys were no longer a thing.

1932 Los Angeles Olympics poster

Kader Rahman and Sarinder Dillon
Kader Rahman, Sarinder Dillon at Indian Recreation Club in Hong Kong

They were the lowest seeded team, and had already lost their first three matches to Malaysia, Belgium and Canada. Their fourth match at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics was against India, a global field hockey powerhouse and a favorite to win gold.

But somehow, Hong Kong – a team of part-time players, primarily bankers who stayed fit in amateur clubs – held India scoreless in the first half of play. That would be akin to Team USA basketball team being tied 20-20 at the half in an Olympic first rounder against Team Haiti, for example. In the half-time huddle, the India coaches and players must have been scratching their heads wondering why they weren’t trouncing Hong Kong.

In the second half, Honk Kong had lost two of their regular defenders to injuries, and eventual gold medalist India went on to score six unanswered goals to indeed trounce Hong Kong, a team that would go 0-6-1 and place 15th of 15 teams in Tokyo.

But that was OK. After all, the players from Hong Kong were in one sense, lucky to be in Tokyo at all. Sarinder Dillon was left half on that Hong Kong field hockey team, and recalled in late 1963 that there was an outside chance Hong Kong could make the cut for the Tokyo Olympics, so they had better be ready just in case.

Hong Kong was outside the top 16 before the Olympics. But we were told that there was a good chance that one of two teams might drop out, so the president of the Hong Kong Hockey Association told us that training would start in January and that we should turn out. We thought, “this is a golden opportunity.” Hopefully a team or two would drop out, so we had to get fully fit and develop as players.

In the subsequent months, the field hockey teams from France and Poland would drop from the list, allowing Hong Kong’s field hockey team to qualify. Now it was up to the players. “We were 17 players, almost all of us bankers,” Kader Rahman, who played right half, told me.

I worked for Bank of America, others Hong Kong Bank, for example. And in those days, bankers played field hockey in amateur leagues. But when we realized that we had a chance at the Olympics, we worked at our offices from 9 am to 5pm, then took a bus to King’s Park and played a match every night. On Sundays, we played two matches. It was tough training for ten months, and most of the time, we still had not qualified.

Eventually, the Hong Kong Hockey Association selected 30 players from the various clubs for special training, eventually whittling down the team to 17 – all from different clubs. Due to the international nature of Hong Kong at the time, it was a very multi-cultural team with 7 Portuguese, 3 Indians, 2 Pakistanis, 3 Malays, and an Irishman and a Scot – all Hong Kong permanent residents. “When we walked around the Olympic Village with Hong Kong on the back of our jackets, other athletes were amazed at our team make up,” said Dillon. “We had no Chinese on the team as the few who played in Hong Kong were from the lower divisions. We all spoke English, but would sometimes talk to each other in Chinese. This further amazed the other athletes.”

In addition to the training on top of their day jobs, the members of the field hockey team were tasked with raising funds themselves. The head of the Hong Kong Hockey Association, who doubled as the Olympic squad’s team manager, went to many companies appealing for contributions. In the end, each team member was still required to put up a thousand Hong Kong dollars each of their own money to help pay for airfare, as well as the required fee for board and lodging in the Olympic Village.

Since Dillon was a student, he was asked to pay only 130 Hong Kong dollars, which his school kindly covered. But Dillon could not escape other duties required. In early September, weeks prior to the start of the Tokyo Olympics, the Olympic torch made its way through Asia, coming to Hong Kong via Manila. As Dillon was the youngest HK Olympian, he drew the short straw and got assigned midnight guard duty of the Olympic torch, to ensure its safety before it took off for Taipei the next day.

Hong Kong Field Hockey Team_1964
The Hong Kong Field Hockey Team of 1964; Sarinder Dillon seated on the ground lower left, Kader Rahman standing far right

Like the torch, the Hong Kong team made it to Tokyo, enjoying the awesomeness of a global event decades before television and the internet could bring instantaneous news and images to our homes and hands. Sarinder recalls his amazement at seeing his field hockey heroes from India and Pakistan in the Olympic Village, and naiveté at thinking that the song he repeatedly heard was the Olympic theme, only to learn it was the American national anthem.

But feelings of awe and wonder were often muffled by the reality of the Games. From October 11 to 18, Hong Kong lost their first 6 matches scoring only 2 goals to the oppositions’ 25. Their final match was against Germany, a team made up of East Germans that would eventually place 5th in the Olympic tournament. The German team and fans in the stands were expecting a rout, a shut out, based on Hong Kong’s previous matches.

Hong Kong did not comply. They scored a goal in the first half to lead the mighty Germans 1-0. In fact, they led the Germans throughout the match. With minutes to go, the players on the Hong Kong team could taste victory, a moment all underdogs dream of – a chance to shine on the biggest stage of them all.

“We were playing a blinder, out of our usual selves,” said Rahman. But then, Hong Kong, with a mere two minutes to go, was assessed a penalty resulting in a short corner chance for Germany. And when the ball flew through the air towards the line of Hong Kong players, it somehow hit the shoulder of one of the defenders and deflected into the goal. When the final whistle blew, it was Germany 1 – Hong Kong 1.

And that was the last time a team from Hong Kong, of any sport, participated in the Olympics. “Our team was 100% amateur compared to other countries in 1964 we played,” reflected Rahman. “Our results were not great, but we enjoyed our time. And today, our hockey team remains the only team from Hong Kong to go to the Olympics.”