Dispatches

Defining Moments

Stephen Osborne

The Olympic Winter Games left a trail of moments: a rare moment, a Canadian moment, a you moment, a me moment...

In the afterglow of the Olympics, when the Winter Games had been over for a day and not yet sunk into the past, newsreaders, talkers and media commentators struggled to remember what had just happened. In much the same way, we strive to recall the dream slipping away as we emerge from sleep, by grasping for the facts as they seem to have struck just now with such urgency: were there 1, in that crowd, or was it 13,, 15,? What facts yield themselves to memory: 39,, 45,, airport, stadium, four-hour queues at the zip line, six hours? Two hours at the beer garden?

By the second day there were fewer facts and larger numbers: 22 million; 26 million; 6 billion, 1 billion, and percentages appeared for the first time: 88 percent, 73 percent, and a surprising hallucinatory detail: “4,5 GM trucks.” As the dream receded further into the realms of memory a trail of moments, irreducible kernels of the eventful, lay revealed to audiences: moments personal, national, Olympian—and true: a true moment and even a moment unadorned, as in “that was a moment,” and of course a Canadian moment, a you moment, a me moment, a real Canadian moment, a rare moment, and the old standard moment of moments: a defining moment. The strangest or most exotic of facts recalled during this moment of waking up was the quantity of “drinks poured out” by police officers: 21, drinks, as reported every half hour on CBC Radio the day after the Olympics ended, calling up images of police officers morphing into bartenders, measuring and then pouring out drinks into the gutters of the city. The deputy chief of police supplied facts of his own: the day after the Olympics was “a great day to be Canadian,” he told reporters. “Tip of a hat to Winston Churchill,” he went on to say in another moment, perhaps a moment of overstatement, “but never in the city of Vancouver have so many owed so much to so many.”

On the first day of the Games, I had lunch at the Pho Thái Hòa restaurant on Kingsway, far from the centre of the city where the Olympic dream was taking form. Among those at the table was the poet laureate of Vancouver, who had earlier in the week denounced the censorship and anti-free speech policies of VANOC, the Moloch-like authority behind the Games. The television screens in the Pho Thái Hòa brimmed with images of smiling faces: announcers, tourists, police officers, children, citizens, athletes. Among the athletes’ faces was the face of my nephew, whom I recognized with a start although I knew that he was on the ski team and at that preliminary moment hoped to win a medal, and I too hoped that he would win. The city appeared on television to be filling up with hundreds or thousands of well-scrubbed people crowding into the centre of the frame; and as we sipped our bowls of pho we understood that another perhaps parallel, certainly more crowded, universe was unfolding somewhere down the hill.

In the evening, I walked down Commercial Drive beneath the eye of a helicopter throbbing overhead, to the Kathmandu Café, where the proprietor, Abi Sharma, had just returned from a demonstration downtown at the Vancouver Art Gallery, organized by a coalition of anti-poverty and human rights groups called the 21 Welcoming Committee, and whose fifty-seven endorsers include Check Your Head, Colour Connected Against Racism, Food Not Bombs, Citywide Housing Coalition, the Bus Riders Union, International Federation of Iranian Refugees, Indigenous Action Movement, Industrial Workers of the World, Student Christian Movement, Vancouver Status of Women, West End Wild Animal Alliance, Worker-Communist Party of Iran, Work Less Party and Progressive Nepali Forum in the Americas, whose president is Abi Sharma, who managed to get a moment at the microphone on the art gallery steps to denounce corruption in the Nepal Olympic Committee. All ten members of the committee were in Vancouver at the expense of the Nepali people, he said, but the only Olympian contender in Nepal, an Alpine skier named Shyam Dhakal, would not be coming to Vancouver because he had refused to divert IOC funds to committee members (a story told on Facebook at the group Help Shyam Dhakal), who had kept him out of the Olympics and deprived him, so to speak, of the opportunity to compete against my nephew in the downhill races.

There are no television sets in the Kathmandu Café, whose walls are covered with large photographs of the alpine forests and snowy peaks of Nepal, the tiny nation of 3 million people where Abi Sharma spent much of his student life evading the political police and in jail suffering interrogation at their hands. His journey to Canada followed a convoluted path that began in Finland in 1986; having failed to learn Finnish within the time required to qualify for residency, he was forced to move on to other countries and other requirements. Twenty-five years later he opened the Kathmandu Café on Commercial Drive, as a locus for revolutionary discussion and a gathering place for those in the Nepali diaspora opposed to the old regime and the growing corruption in the new. He once said to me, as he was describing the early days of student revolution: “I have seen death coming right at me, and I called to my mother.” He had marched with the several thousand anti-Olympics demonstrators from the art gallery to the police barricade at the B.C. Place stadium, where the opening ceremonies for the Olympic Games would be taking place. Then it was time to go back and open the restaurant. Later he said that by opposing the Olympics, “we oppose Coca Cola, which represents to me the real enemy.”

He had heard the poet laureate on the radio explaining his opposition to actions of the Olympic organizers, and he said: “I salute that man, you must tell him that I salute the poet laureate.” At the demonstration he had been most impressed by the Circassians of New Jersey. The Circassians are an indigenous people of the Caucasus, and Sochi, site of the 214 Winter Olympics, is the traditional centre of their lands, from which they have been exiled since the middle of the nineteenth century. A million and half people were dispersed, killed, deported. “They are the victims of genocide,” Abi said, “and they came from New Jersey to attend the protest in Vancouver. I salute them; I salute the Circassians!”

I went for a walk farther along Commercial Drive; it was a Friday night and there were almost no cars on the street and only a handful of pedestrians on the sidewalk. I passed a restaurant and a pizza joint. Inside, people were watching television. I went back to look again, and saw that on television it was opening night at the Olympics: everyone in the city was watching TV.

A few days later I flew to another city, in the morning, as fighter jets lifted into the air from a distant runway and vanished into the vertical blue depths above the city. While I was away, I heard several times on the news that “2, people” would be arriving in Vancouver on the weekend of my return, and indeed crowds of travellers clustered into the baggage area; as I struggled to find a place near the carousel I realized that the crowds were watching a hockey game on the television sets hung throughout the sector. The game went on and on, and by the time my bag appeared the Americans were ahead in the final period.

Outside at the taxi stand there were no taxis in sight, but the line of waiting passengers extended the whole length of the sidewalk, no doubt the effect of the 2, arrivals predicted in the news. I decided to take the new rail service into town, and a young man in a uniform gave me directions that led me into the opening of the parkade, and then down a deserted grey hallway, which I followed all the way to the end, as he had told me, to a door that looked like it was locked but was not locked. I opened it and stepped up onto a roadway. It was dark; above me bright lights shone through glass; I stepped onto a grassy bank and kept going as the young man had directed me. There was no one around, no sign of the 2,, no traffic of any kind. Had I been misled by the young man in the uniform?

I crossed the grass with my suitcase on wheels and came out behind a concrete abutment to a paved entranceway and a set of escalators, one of which carried me, alone, to a deserted platform where a train stood waiting with its doors open. I entered a car and the doors closed. There was one other passenger. We coasted into the city in a vast metallic silence. When I stepped off the train and out onto the street, people were streaming through the intersection, and the crosstown bus was filled with passengers. I squeezed aboard with my luggage, and as the bus pulled away the passengers around me seemed to be enjoying themselves, even perhaps to be enjoying themselves enjoying themselves. They spoke in languages foreign to me and they seemed to be almost out of control, just barely able to contain themselves in happiness.

On the evening of the last day of the Olympics I went out to the House of Dosas for a dinner of vegetable pakoras and Chicken 65 . There is usually a cricket match on TV at the House of Dosas, but tonight it was the closing ceremony of the Games, an event bathed in icy blue light reminiscent of Superman’s Fortress of Solitude in the frozen North. I was reading an old book by Leslie Fiedler and looked up only occasionally into the icy scene, as did the families sitting at big round tables with rolled-up dosas in front of them, but no one seemed to be following the television closely. At some point the table next to me was taken by a man in a red hockey shirt and a woman in a Canadian flag fashioned into a cape. When the mayor of Sochi appeared on television beside the mayor of Vancouver, I remembered Abi’s salute to the Circassians on opening night and looked up, half expecting to see Circassians rush into the scene bearing placards. But the Sochi presentation was relentlessly Russian, and included the Russian anthem rendered loudly and drearily by a chorus clearly determined to sing to the bitter end.

Toward the end of the week of waking up after the Olympics, a media studies professor from Ryerson University entered the discussion of moments on CBC Radio with an account of “moments of passionate consumption” that events such as the Olympics, at least since the Berlin Games of 1936 , are likely to call forth; later the news anchor reported that Chinese visitors at the Games in Vancouver had spent an average $423 per transaction, Russians $236 and Swiss $14 . Sales in local bars and pubs had increased by 13 percent and clothing sales by 98 percent, and whenever the men’s hockey team was on the ice, spending in the city had dropped by 41 percent.

There was another Nepali athlete at the Games, Abi told me later: a cross-country skier who lived in France, who had paid his own way to Canada to ski for his native country. Abi arranged an honouring ceremony for him at the Kathmandu Café and invited members of the Nepali community to attend. He did not invite the Nepal Olympic Committee.

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Stephen Osborne

Stephen Osborne is a co-founder and contributing publisher of Geist. He is the award-winning writer of Ice & Fire: Dispatches from the New World and dozens of shorter works, many of which can be read at geist.com.


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