The southern connection
The dining room was loud, with chatter flying in all directions. Dinner was alternate drop, other than for dietary requirements. It was 2017 in New Zealand, and the conversation naturally turned to rugby, politics and life down south.
HPN was in the Shaky Isles on an overdue holiday, like most in the room. But some were there doing work.
“Hey, isn’t that Ted Ligety? I’m sure it’s him.” suggested one of our dining partners, a middle aged skier from near Wanaka. “I’ve seen him in the World Cups.”
Indeed, as attention turned to dessert, the professionals in the room were noticed. Alongside tourists like us were some of the world’s best skiers, preparing for the upcoming Winter Olympics. Ligety was arguably the biggest name of them all, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and a five-time World Champion on the way back from injury. Ligety was there with much of the American alpine team, with some other pros there to boot.
Ohau only has about 70 rooms, with a steep, windy dirt road separating the lodge from the ski field.
In fact, one of the fellow diners told a story about a local who drove without a seatbelt up the mountain, as a few years prior his car started to go over the edge and he had to jump out before he plunged with it. He figured that a seatbelt doesn’t keep you safe falling down a mountain, a point well made.
When you get to the top, it’s a relatively bare bones experience but a breathtaking one at that. The views stretch out across the South Island, stunning in its scope. There’s only really one lift, but it goes right to the top, allowing for long, luxurious runs.
And there’s nothing more humbling to seeing some of the best in the world shred down the icy, specially prepared slopes while you struggle through the fresh powder to the right.
The best really were the best, and HPN was firmly one of the rest.
The Southern Hemisphere ski season comes at the perfect time for snow sports athletes looking to get back into shape and form for the upcoming season. Increasingly, overseas athletes have used Australia and New Zealand as a springboard into their upcoming seasons.
Australia also is used as a training ground, but usually more for freestyle skiers and snowboarders. It’s not uncommon to see some of the world’s best like Beijing silver medalist Henrik Harlaut:
Or gold medalist Max Parrot:
Hit the parks and pipes in NSW or Victoria. Australia has some of the world’s best freestyle skiers and boarders these days, undoubtedly influenced by some of the international greats that they get to see from a young age.
There was also the time that GoPro bought a 22ft half pipe cutter out to Australia to build a private halfpipe for Shaun White to practice on for the Sochi Olympics. Perisher farmed snow at the end of the season, and were allegedly given the cutter when he left.
Despite the crossover, the elite skiers and snowboarders tend to fly under the radar, helped by the anonymity given by snow clothing. It’s hard to tell anyone apart on the slope, even if you can work out that some are extremely good out there.
The ski fields of New Zealand and Australia may not have the highest profile in either country, largely tucked away from the consciousness
There are just five medals up for grabs on one of the lightest days of the Games.
Freestyle skiing – Women’s – halfpipe (1325 AEST)
The halfpipe is a test of commitment, of a willingness to push your skills to the edge. To get a medal, the skiers will have to be willing to let it go large in the air and still land cleanly. Speed is critical, with a muffed but stuck landing killing a run in its tracks. The best of three format encourages risks, which is good for viewers at home.
Eileen Gu has dominated so far in Beijing, with a gold and silver to her name already. Gu stomped her runs in qualifying, with both passes significantly higher than every other competitor. That being said, it only takes a little bit of luck for the field to come back. Kelly Sildaru looked solid, has a World Championship under her belt and a bronze from big air. Rachael Karker pushed Gu at the most recent World Championships, and qualified for the final in second.
No matter what happens, there will be some fine skiing on show.
Watch rating: 5/5
Freestyle skiing – Men’s ski cross (1810 AEST)
The women’s ski cross saw a blistering display from favourite Sandra Näslund, winning wire-to-wire in every race. The men’s side promises a far more even competition.
The course seems to encourage a decent amount of passing, with maintaining speed over the jumps and rollers critical to getting through to the next round.
World Champion Alex Fiva will be coming in with high hopes, as will defending gold medalist Brady Leman. But so far this season the pace has been set by Ryan Regez and Terence Tchiknavorian, but only just. So far this year six different skiers have won World Cup events, adding an element of chaos to an already chaotic event.
Watch rating: 5/5
Speed skating – Men’s 1000m (1930 AEST)
The big question in the 1000m is will the Dutch sweep the podum? Three of the four World Cup races at this distance were Dutch medals sweeps. The only other event in Calgary saw the top Dutch skaters absent. So they are a solid chance to pull it off here.
Thomas Krol won silver in the 1500m but is recently stronger in this distance, leading the World Cup. Reigning World Champion Kai Verbij sits behind him in those standings, while defending Olympic champion Kjeld Nuis didn’t even qualify this time around, leaving Hein Otterspeer as the third Dutch contender, who beat Krol in November.
Leading non-Dutch potential medalists include the host nation’s Ning Zhongyan who won the mostly Dutch-free World Cup event and Pavel Kulizhnikov, the Russian world record holder from 2020.
Watch rating: 2.5/5
Biathlon – Women’s mass start (1800 AEST)
Biathlon – Men’s mass start (2000 AEST)
The last twist on biathlon these Games is everyone starts at once. Each missed shot means a biathlete has to ski a penalty loop and the first to finish wins. Couldn’t be simpler, at least as far as the cross-country skiing/shooting combo sports go. For no particular reason the women’s event goes 12.5km, the men’s goes 15km, and the Norwegians will probably win both golds.
On the women’s side, Marte Olsbu Røiseland already has the sprint, pursuit and mixed relay golds in her possession along with a bronze in the individual, and looks a good chance to continue on her merry way. Røiseland will be trying to become the first female biathlete to win four gold medals in the some Olympic Games.
She faces competition from several fronts, including Swede Elvira Öberg who has two silvers behind her, and Italian Dorothea Wierer who each won a mass start event so far this world cup season.
On the men’s side, Johannes Thingnes Bø of Norway (Sprint) and Quentin Fillon Maillet of France (Individual and Pursuit) have the golds so far at the Olympics, while German Benedikt Doll has the recent world cup mass start form.
Watch Rating: 2/5
Alternative Medal Tally
Modern sport is obsessed with an obsession with the GOAT – the Greatest Of All Time, as coined by Muhammad Ali. Each Olympic Games sees contenders for the title of GOAT, at least in their own discipline. But there is also another type of GOAT – the animal. You know, the ones with four legs that chew cud.
GOATs run nearly as wild as actual goats, with claims on the title of *the* greatest hitting screens everywhere. For every event winner dubbing themselves as the greatest, there’s a runner up also claiming it. Some medalists are robbed, other are just a little past their GOAT prime. If you take the extremely charitable view that every medalist *could* be a GOAT, who has the most GOATs (or at least medalists) per goat?
Among Winter Olympic medal winning countries, China, Uzbekistan and Australia have the most goats, but the latter two only have relatively few GOATs. This means that Uzbekistan has the most goats per GOAT. At the other end of the scale, it’s Finland which has the most GOATs per goat.