As I mentioned when I went to see the old grand prix circuit in Lisbon, there’s something very alluring about disused sports venues. With it being the Winter Olympics at the moment, this seemed like a good time to bring out some photos from a couple of Winter Olympics venues past: Sapporo (1972) and Calgary (1988). Neither of these were locations I’d made an explicit point of wanting to see, but in both cities circumstances dictated that I ended up spending a good hour at the Winter Olympic park. I’d better watch out – at this rate, it could become a ritual.
The 1972 Winter Olympics brought some interesting additions to the built environment of Japan’s northernmost city – a metro system with rubber track mounts, the Sapporo Dome, and the renovation of this humungous ski jump at Okurayama.
A rickety chairlift runs up the side of the ski jump to the small observation room at the top. Owing to the lack of snow and midweek timing, my wife, our friend Ido-san and I had the whole jump to ourselves. Only the light squeaking of the chairlift and the gentle autumn breeze blowing through the trees stood between our conversation and complete silence.
These pictures make the Okurayama slope look more deserted than it really is. ‘In season’ (i.e. when it is snowy), the slope still hosts tournaments and public practice. Plus, there’s a museum at the bottom, and good sightseeing opportunities from the top.
This empty building was halfway up the slope. I am not a skiing expert, so can only assume it is some kind of building for judges and officials. Peering in through the windows, there was no sign of life whatsoever. However, with Okurayama still in regular use year on year, I wouldn’t imagine there would be any calendars left at February 1972 or ancient copies of the Yomiuri Shinbun inside. Some of last September’s results sheets, maybe, but probably no more than that.
Just squatting down to take a photo made me feel a bit peaky, so I dread to think how I would feel if I had a couple of carbon-fibre planks strapped to my feet and an assistant next to me to push me off. The fact I see these two rails – and the jump at the end of them – as scary and not exciting perhaps goes some way to explaining why I am not an Olympic ski jumper.
Okurayama was utterly silent when we were there. Only as we were about to leave did another couple join us in the viewing station at the top. In the absence of spectators, air horns and clattering cowbells, it’s almost impossible to imagine that for a brief moment on an early spring afternoon in 1972, all eyes in the sporting world were on this hillside.
The remnants of the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics I saw seemed much more lively than their Sapporo counterparts. This was probably in no small part due to the fact that (a) it was snowing vigorously, and (b) less than two months remained until Sochi 2014. Indeed, I read in the local newspaper that until a few days before, many of the Canadian team had been in town training.
With the ski slopes being in good use and a healthy snowfall greatly reducing visibility, I opted not to try to get to the top of the slopes, and instead wandered across the car park and down one of the access roads. My aim was to get to the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame, but on the way I came across this:
The Calgary luge track. It transpired the underpass I had just walked through did not take me under a road, but under a piece of competition track. Far away from the ski slopes and car park, with a thick blanket of snow to soak up any residual sound, the track seemed as eerie and deserted as the Okurayama jump.
As a motorsport aficionado, the sledding sports at the Winter Olympics have clear and obvious appeal. It would be fantastic to stand here during the luge, skeleton bob or toboggan run and watch the athletes go whizzing past at ninety degrees to the ground. To be traveling so fast that one is pinned against a wall must be an awesome feeling – especially when the only engine driving you is gravity. From about the age of seven, I desperately wanted to have a go on a luge. Unfortunately, no such facilities were available in the north of Scotland, and by the age I had the resources and time to get myself to a luge course I had become too sensible.
The Olympic scoreboard may lie unused, but the track is far from deserted – I saw lots of signs for access to the top of the run, and places where you could book a practice or training session. It wasn’t open when I was there, and in any case my travel insurance wouldn’t have covered it. At least that’s my excuse, and I’m sticking to it.
I hadn’t even planned to visit the Calgary Olympic Park, but found myself with an afternoon to spare thanks to an abortive attempt to spend a day in the Rocky Mountains (more about than in a subsequent post). Nonetheless, it turned into a pleasant hour’s walk in deep snow, even if the ever-intensifying blizzard did make it virtually impossible to see anything of any consequence.
For reasons that are not entirely clear, I always really enjoy the Winter Olympics. I’m neither competent nor safe at any ‘winter’ sport – I still have a slight limp after hitting a fence at speed on my only attempt at skiing – but I do have great respect for people that can do such things properly. Watching folk going quickly on pieces of machinery is always appealing too, even if the propulsion is in this case gravity and weight rather than petrol and cylinders. But above all else, there’s maybe a bit of Pavlov’s Dog going on there – when I was young, sledging meant deep snow, and deep snow usually meant a day off school!