Sunday, February 9, 2014

Opening Thoughts

Semi-random thoughts now that the Olympics' opening weekend has drawn to a close:

The Opening Ceremony
With a schoolgirl "flying" dreamlike on cables while new projection technology created all kinds of imagery, it was spectacular. The illusion of breaking ice was striking. The depiction of a circa-1700 warship portrayed strength without portraying aggression. The majesty of Russia's culture was transmitted, the magnitude of its size made vivid.

However, the depiction of twentieth century Russia was more than a little disturbing. Since twentieth century Russia was marked by one of the worst tyrannies in human history, maybe there is a case to be made that asking for a "good" depiction was asking too much, but I don't think so. You could put a heavy emphasis on Yuri Gagarin being the first person in space; infused with a flower-of-peace allusion to the large role Russian soldiers played in defeating the Nazis; followed by a tribute to Alexander Solzhinetsyn, whose freedom-loving soul was every bit as Russian as it was anti-Communist.

Instead we got a locomotive that was explicitly meant to recall the mid-century "propaganda trains" that were used by the Soviet government to carry speakers and films into the hinterlands to sway the minds of uneducated peasants. In the wake of that locomotive we got a hanging sickle bathed in red, and as we all should know, a sickle is not merely a tool, especially in Sochi's corner of the world.

Putin & Co. saw to it that Friday night's extravaganza made no mention of Lenin or Stalin, and of course it displayed no images of gulags. But it made sure to present Russia as an alpha wolf, while Putin himself, KGB veteran that he is, watched with a wry smile. It gave many reasons for people to view it as confirmation of the widely held belief that Putin wants Soviet-style hegemony to be restored.

Meanwhile, when it comes to the games... felt good to see the United States sweep the slopestyle snowboarding golds, with Idaho's Sage Kotsenburg winning the men's event and Tahoe's Jamie Anderson taking the women's. There is something inherently American about this sport. Ours was the first nation ever to be based on a creed of individual freedom as opposed to an accident of geography, and slopestyle is an event where the freest of spirits use athletic prowess to push their individual creativity to the limit.

Winter's Kenyans
If anything is for sure when it comes to the Winter Olympics, it is this: When the medals ceremony for men's luge is held, the top flag will be yellow, red, and black and the music that gets played will be "Das Deutschalndlied," because Germans dominate luge in much the same way that Kenyans dominate long distance running. These games have already seen that dominance continue, with Felix Loch finishing almost a half-second (which is to say, a racing eternity) ahead of silver medalist Albert Demchecnko.

Ominously for the rest of the luging world, Loch is only 24 years old, which means he may not even have hit his prime yet; and this is already his second Olympic championship, since he also won gold in Vancouver four years ago. He has a very legitimate chance to wrest the title of "greatest luger ever" from his countryman Georg Hackl, who won gold in three different Olympics during the 1990's and was known to celebrate his victories by hitting the pubs and openly chugging liter after liter of beer.

Chicks on ice
I'm not talking about figure skaters in tights and sequins, I'm talking about hockey players with sticks and pads. Having watched long parts of three games over the past two days (U.S.-Finland, Canada-Switzerland, and Russia-Germany) I have to say that the quality of play in the women's game is far ahead of where it was one or two Olympics ago. The speed is real, the passes sharp, the shots crisp. Watching a women's basketball game is dull and torturous, but watching a women's hockey game is genuinely exciting -- as a hockey fan.

But unlike men's hockey, in which seven countries have a legitimate chance to win gold, women's hockey has seen us and Canada play for the gold every single time since it became an Olympic sport. The rivalry is so heated that over the weekend I heard one talking head ask if there will be a fight when the teams play this year.

Well, I am glad to hear that our gals take things so seriously, but I'm here to say that based on my "eyeball analysis," I don't think they have much of a chance to win it all. Based on the games I have watched, the team from north of the Great Lakes seems to be in a league of its own. Our team might also be in a league of its own, but it looks like it is destined to be a second place league unless goaltending upends everything.

And lastly...
...the "gay thing." The human rights violations of the Russian government are so sweeping that it is embarrassing to watch our government make it all about some law concerning "gay propaganda" (whatever that means) being pushed on children. It makes our government look small, pandering, and ridiculous. So Putin wants to beef up his arms while protecting a nuclear-ambitious Iran and cajoling us to reduce our defenses? Well, so what, but how dare he harbor negative thoughts about gay people! Let's send Taylor Swift over there to educate him about how insensitive it is to be a bully!

But that should not overshadow the fact that the gay athletes Obama sent over as part of our delegation have handled themselves with class and dignity. Neither Brian Boitano nor Caitlin Cahow are blind to the fact that they were named to our delegation because of their sexuality, not their athletic accomplishments, yet they have conducted themselves as athletes first whose sexuality is incidental.

They talk about the Olympics, not their private lives, and only address their sexuality when they are asked about it. Prior to being named to our delegation, they neither hid nor broadcast their sexuality. Most of us figured Boitano was gay, but we remembered him because the American flag was raised when he won the gold, not because he ever wrapped himself in a rainbow flag.

I don't like Obama....and I think his singular focus on gay athletes is definitely absurd and possibly fake...but I think that Boitano and Cahow have made themselves among our most respectable Olympians ever.

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