Thursday, January 7, 2010

When the world comes to visit

By Tom Hawthorn
Boulevard Magazine
January/February, 2010

Silken Laumann stood on the Olympic podium, a moment the athlete had long anticipated. A bouquet in her hands, she nodded as an official draped a medal around her neck.

Spectators who had cheered so exuberantly moments before stood silently for a national anthem.

The moment matched what she had imagined, only instead of the opening notes of O Canada she was hearing the unfamiliar sounds of a paean to Belarussian greatness. Laumann had just completed her fourth and final Olympic Games on the placid waters of Lake Lanier, a manmade body of water and the dusty state of Georgia’s only lake of any kind. Laumann earned a silver in the single sculls, a disappointing result for a rower so determined to get a gold after having won earlier two bronzes.

“I got better,” she said after the race, fingering the medal around her neck. “And it’s pretty.”

She sounded like a gift-opener being polite on Christmas morning.

Laumann’s Olympic moment in 1996 ached of exhaustion and disappointment, though she recovered well enough to establish herself as a motivational speaker and children’s advocate on her return to Victoria. For her, the Olympics opened a door for an athlete to become a prominent citizen.

After years of planning and building, Vancouver and Whistler are about to play host to the Games of the XXI Winter Olympiad. The 17 days of blanket television coverage (followed by another 10 of the Paralympics) will be hard to avoid. Many are ambivalent about the Games. The cost is obscene. The athletes too often seem little more than vehicles for the pushing of product — a soft drink, a fast-food joint, the spectacular scenery.

The list of what’s wrong with the Olympics is a long one: the misplaced spending; the in-your-face nationalism; the nudge-nudge, wink-wink of such television-friendly eye-candy as beach volleyball; the piggybacking of politicians on athletes’ success. For us in British Columbia, the decision has already been made and the money allocated. The Games are here. Those who oppose them will get another chance in a few years to cast an electoral verdict on those responsible for the decision. Meanwhile, I’d like to encourage all to embrace the event, because, for all its faults, the Olympics brings together the peoples of the world.

Each of us can discover an Olympic moment. We can have one as a spectator, sharing an athletic moment of triumph, or defeat. Or we can have one as residents of this land, seeing it afresh as we share our corner with visitors from around the globe.

These will be my third Games. As a teenager in Montreal in 1976, I delivered the Gazette in the morning before going to class, eagerly adding a coveted Montreal Star delivery route for late afternoons. Too soon I learned why the route had been abandoned. The Olympic papers were thick, a carrier’s payment the same no matter how heavy the bundle.

The extra money came in handy for the purchase of tickets to an Olympic field hockey game at Molson Stadium and a soccer match at the Olympic Stadium, properly nicknamed the Big Owe. Near the end of the games, I tried to buy a ticket to the women’s volleyball finals at the Forum. Shut out at the box office, a fellow fan sold me a ticket for standing room at face value. It meant hours of not moving from my spot above the red seats, but I caught four thrilling matches, including the incomparable Japanese team, whose athletes flung themselves onto the unforgiving floor with abandon. I’d never even seen a Cuban before, let alone a Russian.

One of my lingering memories is of Canadian captain Betty Baxter valiantly, if unsuccessfully, throwing her body after a ball in a losing effort against the Peruvians. Many years later, Baxter ran unsuccessfully for a seat in Parliament from Vancouver.

Nine years ago, Simon Whitfield won the first ever Olympic gold medal in triathlon, inspiring many children in Victoria to take up a sport demanding excellence in swimming, running and cycling. Whitfield remains a world-class athlete and can be spotted jogging along the Dallas Road waterfront while pushing a stroller.

A few years back, I visited an aged Chuck Chapman at his home in the Oaklands neighbourhood. He was stooped by old age, looking as though forever bent over to dribble a basketball, the sport at which he had won a silver medal at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. He kept the medal in a tattered box in the drawer of a side table in his living room, close at hand, but not on display, a gesture as modest as the man himself.

As it turned out, my personal Olympic moment while covering the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 happened not at Lake Lanier, nor at a gymnasium, nor at a stadium.

A Canadian contingent of print reporters was housed in new student dormitories on the campus of Clark University just a short jaunt from the family-owned businesses lining Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. One night, lured by the aroma of smoking meat, I walked through a heavily-barred door into what a painted window declared to be Aleck’s Barbecue Heaven. It was smokey inside. Dark, too. A counter with stools faced the ovens, whose flames made the diner feel more stygian than celestial. A few rickety tables lined the side wall. At the rear, a large poster of the man after whom the street was named loomed over a lone booth. The only typography on the poster: “1929-1968.” The corners were tattered.

I asked the owner why the poster was on the wall over the booth.

Sometimes, the dumbest questions elicit the best answers.

After preaching, the minister made it is habit to come to Aleck’s, just another “hungry brother” seeking a plateful of messy but delicious ribs. That booth at the back was Dr. King’s booth. They kept it after renovations. I had a seat, imagining a saintly martyr as an ordinary man.

Maybe one of our visitors will find their moment walking the landscape that inspired Alice Munro and Carol Shields, or will dedicate themselves to architecture after seeing a Samuel MacLure mansion, or will become a more dedicated horticulturist after strolling through Butchart Gardens.

It’s not just about the spectacle when the world comes to visit.

No comments: