Europe 2002/2003

An Increasingly Warped Perspective - Andrew Mock

 Back to 2002/2003 Team Reports

Installment Number 2 - Uni Games Bumper Special

World Winter University Games: Tarvisio, Italy. Jan. 2003.

Italy really is a unique country. This fact took approximately five minutes to become apparent to us upon crossing the border from Austria into Italy. We were lost (not an unusual occurrence) with nothing but the name of the hotel we were booked into and no idea of how to get there. Seeking out the local Carabineri, we found just the man we were looking for parked by the side of the road…smoking a cigarette and listening to his walkman. Disrupted from his surveillance duties (of a girly magazine), the kind officer was good enough to offer us our very own police escort to Hotel Spartiacque. It was during this short drive that we became aware of the optional nature of many of Italy's road rules. From what we could make out; speeding, indicator usage, adherence to road signs and yielding to other road users came strictly under the 'at your discretion' column in the Italian driver's handbook. Actually breaking a road rule in Italy appeared to require an altogether more serious lapse of judgement - for example; repeatedly reversing over a seven year old child would probably attract some form of fine or, at least, a stern caution.

Upon our arrival at Hotel Spartiacque we were greeted by two charming doormen…in army fatigues, both holding large automatic weapons. Inside the lobby we were introduced to another five-well armed men - seemingly from the same Cadet Squadron. Apparently security was quite tight at Uni Games. As it turned out, it wasn't even our hotel. We had been moved to a lovely apartment - a mere 100kms from Tarvisio. Oops. Considering that all training, racing and official functions were to take place in Tarvisio itself, this was to prove quite an annoyance over the next 10 days. Just when we were starting to feel suitably sorry for ourselves, we had the good fortune to speak with some members of the Swiss ski team. It turned out that they were staying a fossil-fuel depleting 200km from Tarvisio - with no team vehicles. Suddenly, life was looking up.

We were situated in a small rural village of Sutrio along with the entire Great Britain Team. Staying with the Brits had two clear benefits. First, we got to laugh at the horrendous kilts that their male athletes insisted on wearing to all official functions, and second, we had our very own secret police division monitoring our every move. With Bush/Blair on the verge of declaring their joint Iraqi solution, the Uni Games administration were somewhat worried about the US and British teams being used as target practise by some [insert politically correct alternative to 'pissed off Arab']. As a result of this collective anxiety, we became quite familiar with the scenario of glancing around in the café or restaurant we were eating in only to be greeted with the ever-smiling face of our regular under-cover agent seated at an adjacent table. Before long, our small team of spooks were being issued official invites to all team functions and, far from being an invisible presence, they quickly became the life of the party. Our Chef de Mission, Chris Solly, even managed to convince them to drag a hand-cuffed Circa from the midst of a team dinner. On his way out the door and in a state of mild panic, Circa, perhaps somewhat unwisely, protested his innocence: "I didn't do anything! [pointing to another team member] - He's the one that slept in her room!". It's always comforting to see where people's true loyalties lie.

It appears that I have become somewhat side-tracked (a naggingly persistent habit of mine). The World Winter Universiade is, as the name suggests, an International Winter Sports competition open to any person enrolled in a university degree (this rule however, appeared to be widely flouted by a number of nations that shall for the moment, remain unnamed). The sports included in the Games (to the best of my knowledge) are: Alpine and XC skiing, Biathlon, Nordic Combined, Snowboarding, Figure-skating, Ice hockey, Ski jumping and that old crowd-pleaser; curling. The 2003 Australian team had representatives in both X-C and alpine skiing, snowboarding and figure-skating. Our poorly-conceived plans for entering a biathlon team in the Universiade had to be scrapped when Circa and myself ran into problems purchasing firearms. Due to Italy's strict Quarantine regulations, the Australian skiing contingent were forced to stay in different accommodation (in a different town) to the snowboarding team - inconvenient? Frequently, beneficial to our health? Most probably.

After two days of incident free training in Tarvisio/Forni Avoltri the night of the Opening Ceremony had arrived. Bussed into the main stadium and ushered past the first hoard of pubescent screaming groupies, the excitement started to build within the team. The organising committee had assembled an impressive list of dignitaries, athletes and playboys for the grand opening to the games. Gabriella Paruzzi, Alberto Tomba, Marc Giradelli and a host of anonymous (yet overwhelmingly wealthy and overweight) FISU officials were all scheduled to participate in the ceremony. As we proudly marched into the midst of the large, excited crowd (excited is an emotion the Italians do particularly well) behind our intimidating flag-bearer, Katie Calder, we were greeted by a slightly disconcerting sight amongst this sea of goodwill: armed snipers. Glancing up to the top of the stadium's main grand-stands we couldn't help but notice a number of anti-social looking men (I've had to assume this last detail due to their black balaclavas) with high calibre rifles staring back at us. Apparently the organisers were expecting some trouble from the Turkish team.

With all of the competing nations seated in the stands (rapidly developing hypothermia) it was time for the alledged highlight of the ceremony - the lighting of the Universiade flame. For the past two years the flame had been making the gruelling journey from Zakopane, Poland (the site of the last Universiade) all of the way to Tarvisio in North-East Italy (probably carried the whole way by some Polish peasant boy wearing nothing but a pair of long-johns and a hat). Apparently the plan was for the flame motorcade to enter the stadium from the North, whereupon local hero Gabriella Parruzi (possibly the most over-exposed Italian celebrity since Mussolini) would seize the flaming torch, scale a small purpose built hill and ignite the cauldron. Sounded straight-forward in theory - but so did Vietnam. Paruzzi grabbed the torch, Paruzzi climbed the hill, Paruzzi held the torch to the cauldron - the hushed crowd (of no less than 10,000) waited in anticipation…and waited. Ever spent 20 minutes trying to light a barbeque before finally realising that you haven't turned the gas bottle on? Same problem here, apparently. The sight of a stocky Italian handy-man climbing a stepladder in order to fix a faulty 20ft cauldron in front of thousands of bemused spectators (and one devastated Gabriella Paruzzi) will live on in my memory forever.

The opening event on the cross-country program was the 5/10km classic. Tim, Circa, Katie and myself were all racing - along with a large number of excessively hairy and over-muscled Eastern-European athletes (I'm instantly suspicious of any male of university age capable of growing a ZZ-Top style beard). With a solid night's sleep under our collective belts we fronted up to the wax-hut on race morning - life was good. Bounding through the door of the hut I was suddenly confronted with a somewhat worrying sight. It appeared that a strange looking vagrant was waxing my skis. This sad looking creature looked very much like it hadn't slept for two weeks and hadn't showered for twice that. Its eyes were a pinkish shade of red and a trail of dry saliva snaked its way deliberately down the creature's pasty neck. And then it dawned on us…

Our wax-man Matt wasn't in such great shape. Neither was his sense of humour (questionable at the best of times).

"We didn't hear you get home from the wax-cabin last night, Matty….late night?". Mustering all the self-control that he felt capable of, Matt patiently explained to us that, yes - he did feel that 20mins quasi-sleep in his ski-bag on the wax-room floor did qualify as a late night.

The 5km race course had a bit of everything: brutality, cold-blooded intent and even a dash of good old-fashioned hostility. At best, there was approximately 400m of double-pole-able terrain in the whole loop. Such whinging aside however, and it was an inherently fair course - the best classic skier was always going to win.

When all the racing was completed, the Australian male contingent all came away very pleased with their performances - everyone of us recording our best ever FIS points in a classic race. Circa in particular seemed to take a big step forward with his classic skiing. Matt's night of hell in the wax-cabin was also rewarded with 3 pairs of very good race skis. The race was not without drama however, with the Kazakhstanian 'winner' of the men's event being disqualified for skating. His appeal was turned down - and from accounts of spectators out on the course he need not have bothered appealing in the first place.

Katie was not quite as pleased with her race (although I feel obliged to point out that she still destroyed every member of the Canadian women's team) - her wax was a bit too grippy and she lost time on the downhills. Full results can be found elsewhere on the Aussie X-C site.

The sprint was the next event on the program, taking place two days after the classic race. Having been flown down from Sweden for the express purpose of tearing the sprint field to shreds, Tiger Timmy Retchford unfortunately fell victim to a nasty case of bronchitis the day before the sprint. Somewhat weakened by his newly aquired bug, Timmy didn't fire quite as well as he was hoping during the 1km freestyle time-trial but still managed to notch up a very respectable result (especially considering that he's less than 1 year into his long-awaited 'return' to skiing). Circa meanwhile, had some unexpected difficulty in navigating his phenomenally ripped frame through the entrance to a ski-bridge located half-way around the sprint course. After bouncing off one side of the bridge before landing in an angry heap in the middle of the race track, Circa still had the generosity to teach the enthralled Italian crowd a number of choice new English phrases. To be fair to Circa, the bridge was a decidedly technical obstacle - it was barely wide enough for two armoured tanks to pass in opposite directions. No excuses for myself however, I just went out and dragged my sorry carcass around the course as fast as my long, camel-like legs would carry me. Had some fun, and boy did it hurt less than the 10km.

Katie skied solidly in the sprint, but was left feeling that she probably should have gone out harder considering the firm and fast nature of the course.

A sizeable break between the sprint and the last event on the program - the 30/15km skate, gave our small team plenty of time to catch the bug that Timmy was kindly harbouring. Two days before the start of the 30/15km, Katie and myself were feeling about as flat a two-legged, visually impaired tree-sloth moments after attempting to cross the Hume Freeway on a public holiday. Things had picked up slightly by race day but I was still left wondering how I too had ended up with bronchitis, especially considering that Timmy had been securely locked in the attic ever since his infection was first diagnosed.

How no-one died in the start of the men's 30km mass start I will never know. Sending 75 highly agitated, hormonally charged (or maybe that was just me…) young men into a narrow, downhill switchback 200m after the start of major FIS race is not my definition of intelligent - but much to the local hospital's relief, this decision did not prove to be disasterous. Races are funny things - going into the start I had comforted myself with the knowledge that should I feel the need to pull out, my wing commanders Tim and Circa would still be out there - flying the flag. You can imagine my surprise (and annoyance) when, coming through the 10km mark, I was greeted with the sight of Circa and Tim cheering me on from the side of the track. My single-minded desire to wreak vengeance on them (and their friends and relatives) was the only thing that got me to the finish line that day.

Installment Number 1

-- note: apologies for the tardiness of this Warped Perspective, access to (working) computers and internet connections should never be taken for granted in Europe – hell, they don’t even have any shops open for a sizable part of the day…

Yet another year elapsed and another two semesters of my engineering degree completed. Hence, I ask that you please forgive the inevitable (and significant) decline in my literary skills that will be apparent since you last inspected this diary.

It would be nice to claim that my desire to resurrect this European tour diary-of-sorts was due to a heart-felt desire to inform the Australian ski community of the trials and tribulations involved with following the FIS race circuit around middle-Europe. The truth, however, probably has more to do with boredom, self-indulgence and an unused stockpile of half-baked Mt. Beauty jokes.

With so many Australian skiers racing in the Northern Hemisphere this 02/03 season (rumoured to be around 15) it has become readily apparent to me that I have some serious competition in the travel diary department. Unable to compete with Paul Murray’s heady anecdotes from the glitzy World-Cup circuit and Duane Butcher’s remarkable tales of life amongst Norwegian skiing royalty, I have decided to concentrate on my strengths; tabloid style innuendo and gossip. Any reference to frivolous activities such as training and racing will be strenuously avoided – it is inevitable however that some snippets may inadvertently slip through the net, thus my apologies in advance.

I can confidently state that this summer’s trip to Europe promises to be my most poorly planned, under-prepared (both physically and mentally) and plain ill-advised ski trip to date. Not satisfied with an atrocious Oct/Nov training block (Uni work/exams being the main culprit), I went on to make the questionable decision to have my perpetually troublesome tonsils removed in mid-December, a mere 20 days before my departure for Europe on Dec. 30. It is highly probable that the CIA put considerably more fore-thought into the Bay-of-Pigs invasion than I did into this years campaign.

The Plan:

I intend to meet up with Katie Calder, Andrew Circosta and Matt O’Rourke in Munich (who will have already been on the continent for a month). From there we will pilot our hired vehicle (hopefully still maintaining its factory dimensions) through middle-Europe in search of FIS races and that holiest of grails; the proverbial 99 FIS points (the qualifying standard for World Champs and Sprint World Cup). We aim to end up in Tarvisio, N-E Italy on the 16th of January for the start of the World University Winter Games (WUWG). Katie, Andrew Circosta (Circa) and myself will be competing in the WUWGs along with sprint specialist Tim Retchford who will be joining us from Sweden where he is training with Paul Murray, Leon Spiller and some bloody fast Swedes. Matt will be serving as our wax doyen, feng shui consultant and legal advisor for the duration of the championships.

After the WUWGs finish on the 26th of Jan our magical love-bus (cunningly masquerading as a Peugeot 406) will again depart on a tour of middle-Europe. Our itinerary will still be based around FIS races but will also be structured to provide us with some good training opportunities – most likely in and around the Davos and Livigno regions. Circa’s outstanding arrest warrants in a number of middle-European jurisdictions will also influence our travel plans to a sizeable degree.

Up and away….

The human psyche’s ability to repress excessively traumatic experiences continually amazes me. I had actually forgotten how soul-destroying international air travel is. I think I am going to get a tattoo that encourages me to think again every time I make plans involving 20hr long-haul flights.

The human rights violations metered out to me by the good people at Qantas airways on my departing flight to Europe has led me to the opinion that the airline’s entire human ergonomics department consists of a single blind dwarf with learning difficulties. Two hours out of Paris, when asked by the humourless flight attendant whether I would like anything to drink, I seem to recall replying – with a touch of urgency - “yes, poison”. The scary part was, I meant it. By the time my plane had commenced its (grindingly slow) final decent into Munich, I was found by a member of the cabin crew, foaming at the mouth while violently shaking the exit door-handle and screaming: “STOP THE BUS…I’ve missed my stop!”. Needless to say, my sense of humour was somewhat compromised by the time Matt O’Rourke picked me up at Munich Airport on a sunny New Years eve morn.

Obertilliach

We headed straight to Obertilliach, Austria, to meet up with Katie Calder and Andrew Circosta (Circa) who were currently shacked up in a centuries old monastery along with the majority of the British Biathlon team. I’m still not entirely sure whether Katie was convinced that this choice of accommodation was her best (and probably only) ticket out of purgatory or whether it was just really cheap. Needless to say, the monks did their best to ensure that New Years 02/03 was as exciting as Richard Clayderman live in concert (supported by Alan Greenspan on vocals).

Due to the Spartan nature of the snow cover within Middle Europe in early Jan. (any conditions that make Lake Mountain look like Antarctica during a particularly severe winter do not warrant further description), the entire Australian Biathlon team were also resident in Obertilliach – one of the few venues on the continent boasting > 2.5kms of ski trails. Conditions in Obertilliach were quite respectable; 0 to –8C each day with a thorough cover of dry snow. Not a bad place for talent spotting either (not the L. Spiller form of talent spotting) – a good number of the world’s best biathletes (and some handy skiers too) had also set up shop in town. Chasing FIS points (or rather, the absence of FIS points), Katie, Matt and Circa took the Peugeot and headed to Campra, Switzerland on the 2nd of Jan. for a weekend of racing. Feeling about as comfortable on skis as a new-born giraffe with a malfunctioning inner-ear, I decided to skip the Campra races and stay in Obertilliach in order to get some quality time on snow and harass the biathletes. This turned out to be one of the wisest decisions I’ve made since the last time I turned down a lift home from the pub with Teddy Kennedy. Asked to describe the Campra race weekend (10km classic and Freestyle sprint) in 5 words, Matt offered the following eloquent passage: “shit”. The combination of a long transit, beastly race course and poor health all contributed to the foul demeanor with which I was received upon their return, late Sunday night, to Obertilliach (the largely incomprehensible directions I had given them to the apartment I was in probably didn’t help matters).

Ramsau

We departed immediately for Ramsau where we were booked into an apartment for the week. Unfortunately for us, the snow situation in Ramsau was more depressing than the Mt. Beauty Workman’s Club on a Thursday night. Regrettably, much like a Mt. Beauty resident is forced to endure their sorry situation in life, we too were forced to make do with Ramsau’s dubious training conditions. The main stadium in Ramsau boasted an awe-inspiring 3kms worth of man-made trails, every square cm of which had been meticulously sown with small, semi-concealed rocks (luckily, Benny Derrick had lent me his best race skis, so there was no need to destroy my own equipment…I’m joking Benny…really I am…). We spent the majority of the week battling boredom, motion sickness and the desire to do the bunk on our (gracious) hosts and flee back to Obertilliach. If it had not been for Eurosport, $3.00 Bergwürst and the local heated swimming pool, we may not have survived the week without one or more of us being hospitalised with self-inflicted gunshot wounds.

One positive to come out of our time in Ramsau was the opportunity to catch up with a good number of the NSW ski team. Ben Sim, Nick Almoukov and the Watson and Baxter families were all staying in a unit not more than five minutes walk from us (very handy come Sunday afternoon with only half a turnip staring out of the fridge at you). Now a lot of slander has been levelled at our northern cousins over the years (much of it true), but I’d just like to take this opportunity to go on the record and say that I think it’s great that an increasingly large number of NSWelshmen and women have been able to put aside their jealousy at missing out on the ’56 Olympics and finally accept Victorians for what we are. Better. This thawing of interstate relations is certainly a big step in the right direction for Australian X-C skiing, it seems only yesterday that we were losing 5-10 promising athletes a year to gang violence arising from the Vic/NSW snowball fight at Junior Nationals.

After enduring our week of soul-destroying, speed-way style training, the circus came to town. Athletes, coaches, technicians, TV crews and more busloads of groupies than Circa could count on both hands – all of whom were here for only one thing. Yes folks, the Annual Dutch Ski Championships had come to Ramsau. While hosting the ’99 World Champs had given Ramsau some experience at hosting an event of such magnitude and prestige, it would be hard for any venue to adequately prepare for an uber-event such as this. Not to be intimidated by the grandeur, our rag-tag posse of Southern Hemispherians yearned for a piece of the action. The suspicions aroused by our inability to produce credible Dutch passports (Circa’s forgeries were a valid attempt – just a bit too much red crayon) or even fill in the Dutch entry form led to us being entered in the international athletes division. This did not allow us to win any prizes or titles, but it did give us the opportunity to irreversibly shame any Dutch skier finishing behind us (the Dutch officials seemed to find the idea of Australian skiers a bit of a joke – a bit rich from a country with NO natural snow).

The race itself (a 10km mass-start skate) served as a good first hit-out for a number of aussie racers, with 5 of the eventual top 7 places in the men’s race being taken by skiers from south of the equator (see the Australian X-C website for more details). It will be interesting to see whether the Dutch invite us back now that we have lost our novelty status (In all seriousness, I should point out that, without fail, the Dutch were nothing but friendly and courteous to us at all times).

Ramsau also played host to a Nordic Combined World-Cup while we were in town. For those not familiar with this questionable sport – it consists of blindly courageous yet mentally challenged young men with appalling facial hair jumping off large and deadly hills in rubberised body-suits on skis that resemble sailboards….and THEN….skiing like buggery around a cross-country track on more conventional looking skis. In my opinion, the sport would be a hell of a lot more marketable if they were only allowed one pair of skis for the entire event, either launch the K90 on a pair of 195cm RCSs or battle for 15km on a set of the aforementioned sail-boards. Just a thought. To give you an indication of the lasting effect that this sport had on our small contingent, we ended up watching the event in our apartment on Eurosport a mere 1km from the competition venue – we were buggered if we were going to pay $6 to get in.

The 15th of Jan. signalled an end to our somewhat inglorious stay in Ramsau, at which point we loaded up the love-bus and headed to Italy for what we hoped would be 10 days of officially sanctioned debauchery at the World Winter University Games in Tarvisio. The intended 3 hr trip to Tarvisio took approximately 3 hrs, apparently a first for the tour to date (or so Circa kept reminding our increasingly antagonized driver/navigator team). And this is where I am forced to sign off for now (trails to ski, food to eat, hearts to break…) – make sure you keep a look out for the Uni Games bumper special with a rumoured contribution from Tiger Tim Retchford. Auf Wiedersen.

 Mocky

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