World University Games - A Lesson in International Diplomacy
Having been a relative recluse from the Australian cross Country Skiing scene for many years I decided it was time for a return. The drug ridden sport of cycling no longer held the appeal it once did so it was back to the drug ridden sport of skiing! My goal was to represent Australia at the World University games.
With the words 'University' and 'Games' thrown into the one equation you quickly conjure up images of excessive drinking, wild partying and nudity. To be honest I was fairly excited!
Upon arrival in the host city of Tarvisio, Italy (located on the northeast of the Italian peninsula on the Austrian and Slovenian borders) it quickly became apparent that the University Games was in fact a very serious race series. Like most serious races the incessant discussion centred on the travesty of the FIS points system. Wax tips were traded with the secrecy usually only reserved for UN weapons inspection documents! Stone faced Eastern bloc athletes where too focussed on their task to acknowledge your presence let alone smile…
Thank goodness for the Aussies! One of the finest teams had been assembled to represent Australia at this the 21st Universiade. The crack team included Andrew 'Mocky' Mock, Andrew 'Circa' Circosta (yes we had the original nicknames dialled!), KT 'it will only be a quick shop' Calder, our exemplary hot wax tech Matt 'Make mine a Brazilian' O'Rourke and yours truly Tim 'The Tiger' (quite another story!) Retchford. Along with the task of skiing as fast as we humanely could, we also had the specific task of 'getting a rise' out of our fellow competitors, specifically anyone residing East of Finland. It was after all an event to celebrate the union of university athletes from around the world.
With the next Olympics to be held in Torino, Italy it was with some interest I observed the running of the University Games. Much can be said about Italians. They are a flamboyant bunch, famous for their fashion and artistic flair, their pasta and coffee is world renowned, as are their stylish cars. Organisation and close adherence to safety standards I soon learnt unfortunately isn't one of their strengths! And so it was that the Australian team were perched high in the stands (stands that rocked noticeably if people were clapping or moving around) at the opening ceremony. Freezing to the bone and not sure whether to laugh or feel sorry for Gabriella Paruzzi (2002 Olympic Champ) as she stood for what seemed like an eternity trying to light the Games cauldron. Her arms were shaking noticeably as she held the torch aloft. A torch that had made its way quite publicly from Zakopane, Poland the host of the previous games. Eventually another torch was rustled up and the games were officially open. It was hopefully not an omen of things to come!
Looking resplendent in our new team uniforms our happy crew headed to the first race. Ten kilometres of classical for the boys and five kilometres for the ladies. All was well till I ventured around the course and much to my disgust there were hills, very large and steep ones at that, and icy switch back corners. What lay before me was perhaps the toughest course I had ever skied and one that after 10kms of effort left me supine and wheezing and barking like an old sea lion! All in all it was a successful day for the team. Although none of us graced the top spots on the results page we had all beaten some seasoned athletes and despite the challenges of the course all felt we had all skied as hard as we possibly could have.
It seemed like a logical time to get down to our local and chew the fat with the locals! As is the case with most big nights we all vowed for a few quiet drinks and then home. Well, when the locals are shouting you can hardly go straight home, it would be very rude! After downing some of the finest local ale I was pressured into accepting an arm wrestling challenge with a guy going by the name of Big John. Big John spoke no English, in fact on reflection I doubt his monosyllabic grunts could be considered Italian either! What I did know is this guys arms were significantly bigger than my legs and if his sidekick, the affable Andrea, could be believed he was a previous Italian champ. Whether it was divine intervention or a serious case of beginners luck I managed to beat big John not just once but several times in a row. The mystified Big John kept challenging me in the hope that he we would realise I had been tricking him somehow. Fortunately I escaped the night relatively early and unscathed (well I had a mild case of arm wrestlers forearm!). Matt and Circa weren't so lucky succumbing to the free beer and the heinous sight of some impromptu 'dick tricks' performed by Steven Lee! The boys reckon that Steve's 'wrist watch' perhaps didn't hold good time explaining their late arrival home!
The next official event on the program was the sprint. It was a short and fast affair that circumnavigated the stadium. Incentive is often a wonderful way to bring out the best in people. It was decided therefore that we should have some challenges to spur us onto better results. The boys decided that if you got caught by your 15second man then the shout was on you that night, if you were more than 17 seconds off the pace then you owed the other guys a six pack each. With this in mind we were totally charged for a good day. Circa had displayed some nervousness at the fact that his 15-second man was some Kasakstani freak who won the weekend's 10km event only to be disqualified for repeatedly skating the uphills! Despite this the little guy was on the charge and at the midway point was looking good to rival Mocky and myself. With the Kasakstani breathing down his neck Circa decided that he needed to pull a 'do or die' manoeuvre on the tricky right hander onto the stadium bridge. Unfortunate for him (his bum and his beer money) fate (skill?) handed him the die option, stacking heavily into the bridge. Fortunately the episode has been captured on video, although I do recommend that the kiddies perhaps turn the audio off!
It had been another strong day at the track for the Aussies, on a day that every fraction of a second really counted. After a warm down (and a quick trip to the hospital for me after I managed to come down with bronchitis) it was back to the stadium to watch the final of the sprint. With our racing over for the day it was on to our next task of cracking smiles on the faces of the Russian women's ski team. The task was admittedly a very difficult one, however the collective genius of the Aussie team managed it. How could they not enjoy seeing three of Australia's finest specimens dancing pants down at the top of the stands to the dulcet tones YMCA?! Not sure how they will explain their photos to the family back home.
The final events on the program were the men's 30km and the women's 15km skate. Both were run in a mass start format. Considering the width of the track and the number of starters it was quite amazing not to see much carnage in these events. From a spectators point of view that was perhaps a pity. Unfortunately it was from a spectator's view that Circa and I viewed most of the 30km. We both pulled the pin early citing some fabricated pre-existing medical complaints (something about being allergic to long distance races!). Mocky was now very well supported with a three strong drinks cum cheer squad. Amazingly despite starting the race looking like road kill, he managed to hang tough for a very respectable finish.
The women's event was held the following day. It was KTs big day out. Knowing this Circa and I somehow managed to drag themselves out of bed after a fairly large end of racing 'bender' (some claim that they say us flamenco dancing with the Spanish Women's Alpine Team on the tables…rumour and speculation only!) and arrived just in time for the start of the race (well maybe they missed most of the first lap!). The race was a torrid affair with a Ukrainian competitor putting on a clinic, quickly dropping a large pack that had formed behind her. The challenging track in and around the local golf course tested the mettle of even the most skilful races. Crashes were frequent and often mildly bone crushing. KT had a good day and finished well up on the list despite doing her fair share of head and butt in snow time!
As the old saying goes "If you can't beat em in their sport make up a sport you can beat em in!" (I think I may have just made that up). And so it was that the Inaugural University Games boot throw was conceived. Like any good sport the rules were simple and few. 1. You had to throw a ski boot underarm as far as you could 2. Pants had to be down. 2. Full beer in non-throwing hand that could not be spilt during the throwing action! Despite early reluctance from some national teams I can happily report that the lure of free beer and the sight of scrawny endurance athletes half-naked was eventually too much for most. Needless to say an Aussie ('Magnificent Mocky') won the day. Given the enormous popularity of the event discussions are already under way to try and make the boot throw a full medal sport by 2005 in Innsbruck. Fingers crossed!
And like that it was all over (well I have actually skipped over some fairly sordid details of our last night out for the protection of the others in the team…well maybe mostly for my own protection!). It had been a fantastic ten days of racing and socialising. It is unlikely that many of the other countries will forget the Aussies (especially when they get their films developed!) in a hurry! The team parted ways satisfied they had successfully completed their assigned tasks.
Lessons learnt -
1. 'A quiet drink' is a phrase that should be removed from the vinculum of University Games competitors
2. Australian competitors at the next games be sure to wear clean undies everyday!
3. Carefully check the roof structure of the wax huts before embarking on nude runs.
4. Cross-country skiing is a WINTER sport and as such cool temperatures should be expected!
5. Don't laugh when the German women's curling team all fall on ice outside a night club..they are big girls with tempers and no, balancing on ice has nothing to do with their sport!
6. Avoid driving with Steven Lee.
7. 95% vodka should only be used as a wax remover.
8. Eastern Bloc competitors do smile and as I discovered some are totally buffed (namely the Estonian figure skaters). I think I will save that one for my memoirs!