It started a couple weeks early for me with a gentle welcoming invocation by an elder of the Musqueam Nation. It’s done, finally. What happens on the morning after? Maybe we can all wear less red.
I’m a blogger and photographer and I really ought to have been doing an Olympic Diary series, except for I’ve been distracted. But I can’t let these last weeks living at the center of it all pass unremarked. This is way too long and stuffed with network-clogging photos.
My Take · You don’t have to ask me because Vancouver’s own excellent Frances Bula totally nailed it in Hey, it’s okay to be grumpy about the Olympics. I wouldn’t have chosen to put them on, there’s a lot about it that’s nauseating, but it was impossible not to enjoy and I’m pretty sure it will have given Vancouver a shot in the arm.
Kronos and Tanya · That Musqueam invocation was the opener for a Cultural-Olympiad concert by the Kronos Quartet and Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq. The elder was (to use an old-fashioned word) courtly, not neglecting to mention that this was, in a “pre-Colonial” context, Musqueam land, but still beginning and ending with words of welcome in his beautiful language; there are few living speakers.
Kronos, they’ve made a lot of good recordings over the years and they’re fun to watch, live. On any given evening one or two of their pieces will be post-post-modern atonal thrashing, but one or two others will have tons of rhythm and melody and grace.
Tanya, she’s a rock star. I don’t think she’ll ever get a hit on pop radio but the sensibility is closer to rock than any other musical form; all about being on the edge and packing in the emotion. It may just be heavy breathing, more or less, but there’s lots of music in it. An excellent concert, and in UBC’s excellent Chan Centre, the sound was crystalline, perfect.
The Ceremonies · The first ceremony was the torch’s arrival. It came through my neighborhood and we took the boy out of school to go see it. It kind of wrapped up the pros and cons of the Olympics for me. Pro: The city came out and lined the streets for pretty well all of the really rather long route. Con: It was preceded by sponsor trucks from Coca-cola and some radio station, just full of squeaky-clean high-energy young people who don’t drink that shit or they wouldn’t be that healthy. My kid got what looked like a “Canada” banner but was actually a Coke ad. Pro: The police and other security types who accompanied the torch were smiley and gave out treats. Con: There were way too many of ’em. Pro: The young woman carrying the torch, an ordinary-looking Vancouverite but her face shone like the sun on that cold rainy day.
The opening ceremonies lagged here and there but mostly worked pretty well. Has any other Olympics put a poet on stage? (Here’s what he said.) My favorite parts were the punk fiddlers and especially k.d. lang doing Hallelujah; when k.d. really decides to bear down and bring it, there’s no point trying to resist. I’ve been hearing her performance, complete with crowd noise, on the local radio stations and I guess you can buy it on iTunes. Given that k.d. and Ashley MacIsaac were clearly the stand-out performers, Canada’s gay community is probably feeling a little smug.
As for the closer, well... our family adjourned for dinner after Neil finished Long May You Run and they put out the fire. Apparently this was the right thing to do.
The Other Stuff Round Town · There were light shows and free public stages and fireworks every night and various sorts of outposts representing countries and provinces and communities. We didn’t go to any, because they all had big line-ups and most weren’t very kid-friendly, tending to the booze-centric.
On a couple of nights, after musical performances, we found ourselves wandering downtown and I have to say it was cool to see it hustling and bustling and full of music and light, even around midnight. We cruised one of the official party districts and the intensity was nice but in fact it was once again mostly about lining up to get drunk.
The Neil Young Project · Another cultural-Olympiad thing, courtesy of Hal Willner. The Globe & Mail didn’t like it but that’s egregious nit-picking. The quality of the performances was all over the map — Lauren referred to a couple as “drive-by shootings” — and there was no detectable structure to the thing. But you know, most of the musicians were really good and they were playing Neil Young songs!
There was wide consensus on the highlights: Emily Haines doing A Man Needs A Maid, Eric Mingus’ (Charles’ son, looks just like him only white) astounding take on For the Turnstiles; and I’ve heard two different covers of that tune on the radio recently, what’s up with that? I didn’t actually much like Lou Reed’s dissonant electric snarl through Helpless, but I’m still glad I was there to hear it. And finally, Elvis Costello brought the place right down with Cowgirl in the Sand then Cinnamon Girl, Lou standing in on guitar noise, quite appropriately.
There were three-plus hours of music, and tons of Neil Young classics and anthems still didn’t get played: Down By The River, Tonight’s The Night, Like a Hurricane, Rockin’ in the Free World, My, My, Hey, Hey come instantly to mind. Wow.
How To Get Tickets · We tried hard but only got tickets to a couple of curling sessions; I would’ve loved to see some short-track speed-skating, but we struck out and I refused to pay the inflated aftermarket prices.
An acquaintance of mine, not particularly wealthy or well-connected, got lots of excellent tickets to cool events including the opening ceremony and a couple of excellent hockey games. They did it like this: she and her family signed up for a total of $90,000 or so worth of tickets, realizing that you score on maybe one in fifty of your requests, and ended up with a nice package. If the next big hot event you want to attend has a similar ticket-buying system, I suspect that’s the way to go.
The Sports · As I said, we only got to a couple of curling sessions. One, a men’s round-robin, four matches in parallel, not on that morning including Canada. The other, women’s semifinals: Canada/Switzerland on one rink, Sweden/China on the other.
Curling, many think it ridiculous but it’s not. It’s terrific TV once you get a feel for the rules, and the women are just as entertaining as the men. Also, it’s a small-town family-feel sport, when you get right down to it mostly about the drinking and hanging out. So if you get a chance to watch some live, I totally recommend it.
The venue was walking distance from our house; that was nice. The logistics, given the absurd security requirements, were about as good as could be expected. The line-up was entertained by flag-and-cowbell sellers who also offered free hugs. The seats were pretty well all just fine. The worst thing about it was the food, barely adequate in quality and stupidly overpriced.
The round-robin day was vastly more enjoyable; Canada wasn’t playing but the majority of fans were still locals, thus just there to have a good time. While there were pockets of fans for the on-ice teams (China, US (a big pocket), Norway, Sweden, Denmark, France, Germany, Great Britain) the audience was willing to join in chanting and thumping behind whatever flag was being waved at any given moment. Only the Sweden-US match was really tight, going down to the last rock in the extra end, and many in the crowd became partisans of one or the other; but all-in-all it was just a hoot; what I think we’d like to imagine the Olympics being.
On the semifinals day the crowd was overwhelmingly there to cheer on the Canadians, who won a very tight match against the Swiss. Thus the atmosphere was much more combative, with what I thought was some pretty low-class effort to drown out the Swiss cheering section. It just wasn’t as much fun.
On the other hand, when the Swedish women won their match (poor China had a bad day, got crushed), their faces were radiant as they waved to a very specific spot among the only middling-good seats where there was a lot of yellow-and-blue in evidence, and it turned out two of them had kids up there; a teeny baby and a little girl. Awwwww.
Delusions · The Olympics commissioned this piece to be written and performed live by Laurie Anderson. If you don’t know who Laurie is, hop on over to YouTube right now — trust me on this — and watch Gravity’s Angel. I’m a hopeless fan. Her shows have always included a certain amount of spoken-voice amongst the music; this included some snippets of music among the narrative. I like her music better; but still, I’d go see it if it came to your town.
All That Stupid Red and White · I ain’t no Canadian patriot; I argued at length in On Nations that nationalism is “mostly mythology and tribalism and bullshit”. And what enthusiasm I do have about my country for sure isn’t a function of winning ski-jump medals. This whole “own the podium” crap and the apparent willingness of my whole city to lap it up and dress in dorky brilliant-red-and-white outfits and talk about medal counts over beer leaves me gasping for rational air. And then some of those “sports”, the ones where the winners are decreed by everyone-knows-it’s-corrupt judges operating in national-bloc cliques, it’s enough to make you puke.
So I’d like the whole Olympics better if we could ditch the flags and the anthems and the whole national mythology and the hundred-mile-high tower of stinking hypocrisy that it’s built on.
But, I recognize that I’m in a minority here. In fact, this exercise has brought it home to me that yep, a ton of Canadians are excited about the abstractions of Canadian-ness, were really happy that “we” won more medals of whatever colour, and probably thought that the truckloads of money that our government poured into luge and snowboard athlete development was worth every penny. Oh well, don’t mind me.
Hockey · Even someone as grumpy and cynical as I can’t be unmoved by the tribal fervor around the game. Lauren had her knitting coven over to watch the gold-medal match, so the good-fellowship was about as you’d expect, only with less beer and more opinions as to the cuteness of this athlete or that.
I’ve never lived in a British football hotbed or Midwestern basketball town, but I can tell you that Vancouver, when the hockey frenzy sets in, has the sort of feeling you read about.
Whatever my feelings, I could tell that a loss in the Big Game would have inflicted severe psychic damage on a whole nation. When Parise got that last-second US goal, the Canadian angst seemed to be sucking all the oxygen out of the air.
And the explosion of joy around that burst of Sid-the-kid-to-Iggy-to-Sid magic was heartfelt. Shortly after, the guests left and we took the little girl for a walk. Just out the front door we could hear the horns and the howling. We cruised a half-dozen blocks down the local main drag, enjoying the celebration, the smiles and high-fives from strangers, the burly guys hugging each other, and everywhere red and white, red and white.
There’s no doubt: Something that brings so much happiness to so many people can’t possibly be bad. But maybe we can take down some of the flags now and dress in a color that’s not red?
Keeping Safe · The #1 Olympic worry for a lot of us was that the ridiculously-excessive billion-dollar security budget would turn us into a petty police state. Well, it didn’t. There were tons of extra cops and noisy helicopters buzzing overhead, but I never saw an automatic weapon nor an instance of irritating official behavior; in fact, the cops were mostly in full-on cheery mode. And nor did any bad guys pull anything off.
As for the protestors, despite having some very reasonable gripes and engaging in a certain amount of fairly-skillful provocation, they failed to get any serious traction. So, the cost remains stupidly high, but it could have been way worse.
How We Held Up · The big worry, of course, was that our city, which is not terribly car centric, nor flat, and where you have to cross a bridge or two going from anywhere to anywhere, would just implode under the pressure of Olympic traffic. So we spent a couple of billion bucks and ripped the shit out of the city to get the infrastructure together. And it worked; I never had any trouble getting around and the athletes got to the games on times and I didn’t hear much bitching. Everyone’s hoping we get a permanent boost in mass-transit culture.
For my money, the people who are the real Olympic heroes are the ones who kept the buses running and drunks pacified and the streets clean. The odds against them were tough but not impossible, because people succeeded in having fun without making trouble. Good on ’em all.