I don’t recall the last time a Winter Olympics began with the death of one of the competitors. Yesterday, an athlete from the former Soviet republic of Georgia, Nodar Kumaritashvili, crashed and died during a practice run on the luge track: officials believe that he failed to steer his sled with sufficient care on what has been hyped as the “fastest track in the world”.
There is something compelling about Kumaritashvili’s tragic story: he was only 21 years old, he was full of patriotic fervour, and he was willing to push his personal boundaries for the possibility of achievement. I believe I’m right in saying that Georgia is not considered a top flight nation insofar as the luge is concerned: his efforts were the first tentative steps by his nation into a new field of competition. In short, this athlete’s tale is decidedly Olympic in nature, detailing an expansion of frontiers at every level. No wonder his passing cast a pall over the Opening Ceremony.
There are other reasons to see Vancouver through darkened glass: the Games have been overshadowed by difficulties – technical, meteorological and economic. This was evident even in the opening ceremony: for example, it may just have been a matter of broadcast delay, but from my perspective it was obvious that the young lady singing the Canadian National Anthem was moving her lips out of synch with the music. Furthermore, the ceremony during which the Olympic flame was lit apparently lacked one large pylon out of four; this left one of the celebrity torch bearers looking rather forlorn.
More significantly, costs are also out of control; for example, the original budget suggested that security would cost $175 million. This figure has since been revised upward to $1 billion. Meanwhile, due to the overall economic situation in Canada, cuts in public services such as primary education are happening at the same time. This paradox of extravagance amidst penury has spurred significant local opposition to the Games, and indeed inspired the creation of a local watchdog group.
Furthermore, the Games have been dogged by weather problems, some of which may be symptomatic of climate change. As I sit here on the afternoon of February 13, it is uncertain if the weather will sufficiently co-operate to allow the blue-ribbon event of the Games, men’s downhill skiing, to take place. Additionally, Cypress Mountain, which is being used for the freestyle skiing events, has suffered from a lack of snow due to El Niño. According to the Christian Science Monitor, some “20 Big Bens” worth of snow have had to be shipped in to the venue. It is certain is that the lack of snow was beyond the ken of those who planned the Games, though their Sustainability Agenda indicates that the environment was at least in the back of their minds. Even so, there are criticisms of the Games insofar as its green credentials as well: some have gone so far to suggest that the Games will leave a legacy of social and environmental destruction. Upon examining the facts, it is difficult to disagree: as has been stated by an activist, the most environmentally friendly Games is one that doesn’t take place at all.
I don’t believe organising a trouble-free Olympics is beyond the ability of the Canadians; I recall the 1988 Calgary Olympics with some fondness. I particularly remember the relatively simple Opening Ceremony, which featured the Canadian National Anthem being movingly sung by a Native American in his own language. The current difficulties may be merely a reflection on the abilities of the organisers, the International Olympic Committee, or simply a mix of bad luck and overbearing ambition. At first glance, I cannot help but compare Vancouver to Beijing: the latter was organised with such stark precision that it took one’s breath away. Upon reflection, it may be that the scale of the Games has always been better suited to the talents of authoritarian or dictatorial regimes; it is difficult to imagine the omission of a pylon being allowed in any Chinese spectacular, simply because of the range of punishments that exist for failure. A Games organised by a free nation has to contend with the imperfections inherent in wilful people absent the restraining force of retribution. For such an Olympics to be memorable, it has to overcome this barrier and tug on sentiment.
There were moments during the Opening Ceremony that suggest this outcome is possible; while the Canadian National Anthem was botched, k.d. lang’s rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Alleluia” was heartfelt. Given Death’s unwelcome intrusion at the start of the Games, her touching performance was particularly apropos. The athletes themselves looked happy to be there: I was cheered to see Iran’s first female athlete at the Winter Games bearing her country’s flag. It was also inspiring to see the first ever delegations from Pakistan, Ghana and Peru. These were reminders that the Games still retain the ability to transcend the confinements within which they take place and the unremitting mess of running them.
Still, Vancouver has had a less than stellar start: the task now falls on the competitors to give us the drama and excitement that make the event worthwhile, and the organisers must wade through the detritus of their original planning in order to bring lasting benefit to the city in a manner that does no further harm. For the next two weeks, I’ll be on the edge of my seat, hoping that the Games will step out of the shade, inspire and shine.