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A Transatlantic Clash Of Sensibilities As The Brits Bash Canada’s Olympics

February 18, 2010

I haven’t seen a single second of footage from the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, but it sounds like I’ve been missing one of the more eventful and chaotic Olympic spectacles in recent memory. Just a few days in, we’ve already had window-smashing protests, the untimely death of a Georgian athlete, and some seriously uncooperative weather. The opening ceremony was notable for too little French, a malfunctioning “ice spire”, an occasionally inspired but flabby and mostly mediocre poem, and a quartet of totem poles that reminded at least one transatlantic observer of a certain part of the male anatomy:

Maybe we Brits, exposed to a lifetime of Benny Hill and Carry On have lost the charming innocence with which Canada is allegedly suffused, but you would have thought that someone in the army of choreographers, designers, and stage managers overseeing the production might have said at some point: “Sorry, but does that not look a bit like four huge todgers?”

Well, no, I wouldn’t have thought that, if only because “todgers” is not exactly common parlance around Vancouver. As for innocence, perhaps we Canadians are actually so suffused with charming sophistication that we can play around with phallic symbolism without feeling obliged to descend into adolescent sniggering.

Todgers aside, Britain’s journalists seem to have collectively decided to put the various glitches and shortcomings at the heart of the narrative they are building around the Vancouver Olympics. The Times has christened our Olympics the “Calamity Games”, while the Guardian was perhaps more generous in suggesting that the Games were merely engaged in a “downhill slide from disaster to calamity”, presumably not having reached the calamity stage quite yet.

The National Post’s Don Martin indignantly hit back by awarding the British “a gold medal for premature Winter Olympic whining”, but Colby Cosh over at Maclean’s had a more nuanced reaction. He asked why British writers, despite being far from alone in criticising the organisational problems at the Games, had attracted so much attention. One of the factors he mentioned was the following:

Criticisms naturally hit harder when they’re written with great force. British writers are vigorous, direct, unflinching, entertainment-minded, and, in general, better at their trade than ours… Their newspapers are more fun than ours, pay good writers much more, and are doing better as businesses.

Having read my share of British journalism, I would say that this is largely true. The writing is indeed livelier in UK papers, and the content more likely to be interestingly racy or controversial – see, for example, Bruce Anderson on the desirability of torturing the wives and children of terrorists or Patrick Muirhead on the complexities of sexual orientation.  But it also has to be said that the British media too often wallow in near-toxic swamps of outrage and indignation, as the journalistic hysteria last year over unjustified expense claims by MPs amply demonstrated. This tendency to make molehills into mountains, and genuine mountains into entire ranges of towering peaks, surely encourages the “Calamity Games” approach to Olympic coverage.

Meanwhile an expatriate Brit, Christopher Hitchens, has provided what must be the most scathing critique of sport in general since (the Englishman) George Orwell wrote “The Sporting Spirit”. For Hitchens, the Olympics are a “bloatedly funded spitefest” and sport itself is a pernicious endeavour that fans the flames of conflict and racial tension, injects stupid metaphors into public discourse, and ensures that “a string of thugs and mediocrities is regularly marketed and presented for ‘role modeling’ purposes.”

I personally find most sports boring, and the culture that tends to surround them – stentorian, competitive, conformist, moralistic, anti-intellectual, pointlessly pseudo-tribal – decidedly off-putting. I can appreciate the gladiatorial thrill of combat sports or the quiet psychological intensity of something like shooting or archery, and I can enjoy watching scantily clad female athletes do almost anything for at least a few minutes, but for the most part I simply shrug and change the channel. However, the Olympics at least has the advantage that the athletes compete as representatives of real nations rather than as deracinated mercenaries, and I was as happy as anyone (well, fairly happy, at least) to read that Alexandre Bilodeau had become the first Canadian to win gold on home soil – I’m just glad I wasn’t obliged to watch him do it.

I also approve of sport from a philosophical perspective. As someone who believes that human existence comes without any intrinsic meaning or purpose, and that consequently we all need to find meaning for ourselves, I appreciate people who devote significant time and effort to seemingly impractical pursuits like dancing on a pair of skates. Like science, art and literature, sport is one of those human activities that screams to the universe that we are more than animals concerned with our basic material well-being.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. February 22, 2010 12:22 pm

    I love your way with words – and the words of others….

    But I wonder if the Brits verbal attacks on Vancouver have more to do with reducing expectations of their role as the next Olympic hosts as they have to do with reality. It reminds me of how I used to take great care in pointing out each of my sister’s failings in school in order to lower my parents expectations of my academic record.

    And while you are enjoying all of this at a distance, we’re living it each day in full red and white. And from my vantage point atop Deutche Haus (formerly SFU Harbour Centre), it looks like a well run massive event. I’m particularly taken with how our city has capitalized on the Games in Vancouver. Check out the daily videos they produce at:
    http://www.youtube.com/user/VancouverCityHall#g/u.
    Shauna

    • canworldjon permalink*
      February 22, 2010 2:38 pm

      I was thinking this too — if Brits can slam Vancouver over and over as the “worst ever”, anything that happens in London in 2012 will be seen as an “improvement” over those wretched Canadian winter games.

      Oh, and Corwin, your writing reminds me, at times, of Christopher Hitchens, particularly the line about “adolescent sniggering”. And while I’m guessing you might disagree with a few of Hitchens’ views, the guy wields a fierce pen, especially when he gets on a rhetorical roll.

      • corsullivan permalink*
        February 24, 2010 11:58 am

        Oh, and Corwin, your writing reminds me, at times, of Christopher Hitchens, particularly the line about “adolescent sniggering”.

        I’ll certainly take that as a compliment! Hitchens is one of those people I find that I can admire and enjoy as a writer even when I vehemently disagree with him, which probably happens around half the time.

        I’m actually not persuaded that the Brits are trying to lower expectations for the London games. I think they really are just indulging their propensity to complain about everything, and I expect their opinions about whatever happens in London in 2012 will be equally sharp and vitriolic. But time will tell.

  2. reneethewriter permalink
    February 21, 2010 9:07 am

    Great piece, Cor, wish you were here to take it all in.

    The “todger” quote is hilarious – a new addition to my vocabulary. (vobacularly always reminds me of constabulary – word?)

    The quote below is Vintage Cor and I hope to take issue it (pronounced in the manner of the British),

    ” I personally find most sports boring, and the culture that tends to surround them – stentorian, competitive, conformist, moralistic, anti-intellectual, pointlessly pseudo-tribal – decidedly off-putting. I can appreciate the gladiatorial thrill of combat sports or the quiet psychological intensity of something like shooting or archery, and I can enjoy watching scantily clad female athletes do almost anything for at least a few minutes, but for the most part I simply shrug and change the channel. ”

    for now, I’ll rest with the image of weedy-tweedy Hitchens mouthing off about beautiful young humans doing what they do in the “zone” of “higher, faster, stronger.”

    I live in the suburbs and travel into Vancouver for school – interesting to see the city split into cohorts – who cheers, who disdains.

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