Monday, March 29, 2010

*Not* the Best Olympics Ever - February 2010

A year and a half ago, I sat down to watch the Beijing Summer Olympic Games. At the time, I had just returned to Canada after ten months in Hong Kong, where the games were a big topic of conversation. It's a mark of how long I've been back in my home country that this month I sat down to watch the Winter Olympic Games, held in Vancouver. Once again, during my time in Vancouver, the Olympics dominated the news, the landscape, and people's conversations. Attitudes towards them tended to be conflicted, to say the least, and some were downright hostile. As a result, my feelings as the games approached were somewhat ambivalent. On the one hand, I know there are a lot of arguments against the way the Vancouver Olympics were handled. Vancouverites felt they didn't have enough say in how their city was being run. Many thought it frivolous to spend so much money on a sporting event when hundreds of people are without housing. And, of course, we all remember how long it took Montréal to pay off its Olympic debt.

On the other hand, I'm a die-hard Olympic fans. It's they only sporting event I watch, and a highlight of my bi-annum. I have fond childhood memories from Olympics gone by of the opening and closing ceremonies, the skating, the gymnastics, and other favourite events. And did I mention that Chariots of Fire is my favourite movie? On a less puerile note, I genuinely believe that the games are a valuable international institution. There's a lot of rhetoric about the nations of the world setting aside their differences and coming together peacefully for the glory of sport, and a lot of it is hype, but there is some truth to it, too. I'm one of the most sedentary people around, but I do appreciate the health benefits of athletics, and I especially appreciate the ability of sport to transcend linguistic and cultural barriers. Being an E.S.L. teacher, I've found it depressing to note how few common cultural reference points students from different countries have. Generally, you can count on everyone being familiar with U.S. film, music, and television, but knowing precious little about each other's cultures. Along with the World Cup, the Olympic Games provide a rare cultural event that is truly international, and can be celebrated by people all over the world.

Anyway, that lengthy disclaimer is all by way of saying that, yes, I watched the games, and, yes, I enjoyed them. They had a lot of problems this year, especially at the beginning. First, there were the angry Vancouverites protesting the games and trying to stop them. (To which I can only say, dudes, let it go. That ship has sailed. They money's been spent, the roads have been built, and the games are happening, whether you like it or not. Get over it! You're not going to get your money back; the most you're going to do is send the message to the world that Vancouverites are unfriendly. Which is pretty much cutting off your nose to spite your face.) Then there was the Luge Track of Death (literally), which killed a Georgian luger just before the opening ceremonies, and delivered some nasty knocks to several other athletes. The opening ceremonies were rather dull, and they ended badly when one of the arms of the Olympic cauldron refused to rise, leaving torch-bearer Catriona Le May Doan at a loss. That was followed by another fiasco of sorts when Wayne Gretzky was loaded onto the back of a pick-up truck so he could take the flame from the stadium to the waterfront, and light the second cauldron. The games themselves were plagued with Vancouver weather, which is to say spring in mid-February. They fixed the cauldron malfunction for the closing ceremonies, and Catriona Le May Doan finally got to light the torch. We were then subjected to my least-favourite Canadian, William Shatner, an annoying speech on Canadianness by Catherine O'Hara, and a parade of Canadian stereotypes. (I hope our international viewers got a kick out of that, because I just found it embarrassing.) Oh, and I didn't mention my biggest complaint: CTV, which seemed to think that audiences would prefer hearing Brian Williams talk for hours at a time to watching any of the actual sporting events, and whose reporters went around asking our athletes inane questions like, "How disappointing was it for you not to win gold?" ('cause winning silver is such a dismal failure), or "What were you singing during the playing of 'O Canada'?" (gee, I'm going to guess something by Queen…). Note to the I.O.C.: never ever let them cover an Olympic event again!

In spite of all those shortcomings, the actual games were quite enjoyable. On the first Saturday we won silver in the women's moguls. The next day, at the men's moguls, we won our first gold medal of the games, also our first ever gold medal on home soil. I was pleased, of course, that we no longer held the dubious distinction of being the only country to host the games without winning a gold medal at them, but I was also relieved that now we could stop whining and complaining and harassing our athletes to perform better, and just enjoy the games, already. As it turns out, we won a lot more golds, including in women's speed-skating, hockey, and bobsleigh. We won gold in men's curling against the Norwegians (who had awesome pants, by the way), and gold in the pairs ice dance competition (an enchanting performance). Of course, the men's hockey game was the most intense. I don't go in for team sports, but I listened to final game and it was pretty exciting. All told, we won fourteen gold medals, a Winter Olympic record, which, I think, makes the failure of our (rather arrogant) "own the podium" bid a mere technicality.

There's no question that we succeeded as Olympic participants. In fact, I'm almost inclined to wonder if we didn't over-achieve a bit. After all, we pumped a lot of money into our athletes, more than most countries can afford to, and we seemed at times so obsessed with winning that we'd forgotten how to enjoy ourselves and be good sportsmen. As Olympic hosts, I think we had a bigger responsibility than just winning a lot of medals: we had to host the world and put on a good show. I sincerely hope that the world felt welcomed and entertained.

After the controversy surrounding the Beijing and Vancouver Olympics, I'm looking forward to 2012, when the games will be neither in my home country nor in a Communist dictatorship. Hopefully, with the games in London, England, I can un-mute my enthusiasm and enjoy them guilt-free. After all, superimposing the biggest sporting event in the world on one of the most populous, crowded, and expensive cities in the world… should be a breeze!

In mid-February I got my first ever Family Day holiday. Ontario Family Day was only introduced a year or two ago, when I was living elsewhere. The long weekend also brought us Valentine's Day, Chinese New Year, and the Olympic opening ceremonies. I spent the weekend with family in Mississauga. It was nice; I got to see some cousins I hadn't seen in years.

Since coming back from Hong Kong, I'd had it in mind to host a Chinese New Year party. Early in February, I went to a C.N.Y. party for international students, and I decided I should have one at my place. I put up my Chinese decorations, and made my guests do Chinese calligraphy on red paper and hang them on the walls. I served jasmine tea, and candied lotus seeds, lotus roots, and coconut for snacks. For dinner we made pot-stickers, which sound fancy but are actually remarkably easy to make. I bought the dumpling wrappers ready-made, made some fillings, and had my guests help with the stuffing (by far the most labour-intensive part of the whole process). For dessert I bought a Chinese year cake, the kind you need to fry. My guests were a little bemused, but liked it better than expected, as did I. We also had mochi, and one of my guests was thoughtful enough to bring chocolate coins. After dinner we sat around playing Chinese checkers and watching the Games. At the end of the evening one of my friends gave everyone red packets of lucky money. I don't know how much like a traditional Chinese New Year party it was, but it was certainly a cultural experience for all concerned, and I think everyone enjoyed it.

I was selected for a JET interview again this year. I tried to draw on my experience from last year and to go in super-prepared. One piece of good advice I got before the interview was that often interviewers will ask unexpected questions just to see how the interviewee deals with them. Bearing that in mind, I made a point of answering each question promptly. Fortunately, they didn't ask me any really strange questions. In fact, I think the interview went quite well. I really hope they accept me this time. I don't think I've got the heart to try again if they don't. As always, prayers are appreciated.

I meant to do some skating practice this Winterlude, but I actually only ended up going once. Unfortunately, once Winterlude ended, the weather got warm, and the canal was closed, so it looks like I'm done with skating for another year. I did make it out to the park to see the ice sculptures.

Movies I've seen this month:

Synecdoche, New York
– I would probably benefit from watching this movie again. It took me about half an hour just to figure out that it wasn't following a traditional narrative structure, during which time I probably missed a lot of symbolism. Even if I understood it, though, I suspect that I might not actually like it. It reminds me a bit of 8 1/2, and I didn't much care for 8 1/2, either. (Two and a half stars)

Encounters at the End of the World
– Documentary about Antarctica by Werner Herzog. Narrated by Werner Herzog! And if that doesn't sell you, I don't know what will. I appreciated the title's dual connotations, the cinematography, the characters, and the philosophy. Most of all, though, I appreciated Werner Herzog, who may just have the most entertaining voice in all of cinema! (Three and a half stars)

My Night At Maude's
– Cute, harmless French film. Except that it's unusual to hear characters seriously discussing religion in a movie, I can't say that it really has anything to distinguish itself. (Two and a half stars)

The Blind Side
– Sweet, inoffensive movie about a white woman who adopts a black teenager into her family. I'd say the plot was wildly implausible, but apparently it's based on a true story. (Three stars)

La Notte
– Another Antonioni film. This one at least makes sense, but I still didn't like it that much. (Two and a half stars)

– Lesser Hitchcock film about Cold War espionage. The storyline is meandering and rather dull. (Two stars)

The Waiting Time
– Unremarkable British mystery thriller. (Two and a half stars)

Books I've read this month:

The Road
by Cormack McCarthy – Stark, post-apocalyptic novel by the author of No Country for Old Men. I really appreciated the bleakness of the story, and the uncompromising hopelessness of the world in which the main characters find themselves. What really impressed me, though, was the tenderness of the relationship between the father and son. It was one of the most moving portrayals of parental love I've ever seen in a work of fiction. The one jarring note for me was the ending. Ironically, I actually found it unnecessarily depressing.

by Ezra Levant – Book about the Canadian Human Rights Commissions, and how they seem to be responsible for violating as many human rights as they protect. The language of the book is rather hysterical in places, but much of what it says is pretty scary.

The Tribes of Britain
by David Miles – The ethnic history of the British Isles. While the premise is fascinating, the focus seems to drift at times onto straight British history. That's still fascinating, of course, but I would have liked to hear more, for example, about how the Acts of Union affected national demographics.