On the Couch / Uplifting Games, if sometimes confrontational
Despite the protest groups in the streets, despite the uncooperative weather and the slush on the slopes, there's been plenty uplifting in the first week of the Winter Olympics. I don't know what grabbed you most, but two favorite moments to savor came at the end of the blue-ribbon events - the figure skating pairs and the women's downhill.
The veteran Chinese couple Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo - literally a couple following their marriage three years ago - were awaiting the verdict of the judges in the little box at the side of the rink from where the skaters customarily wave a coy "Hi Mom!"
They're magical performers, grace replacing athleticism and the reverse in quick succession. Arithmetic, though, is not their strong suit. They continued to hold thumbs, cuddle up to one other, and mumble under panting breath a little prayer or whatever supplication their trainers permit even after the numbers came up. Still, it didn't sink in. "Come on guys," said Eurosport's Simon Reed, "you've got the gold, don't you get it, you've got the gold." It took several more long moments until the announcer spelled out their triumph baldly; only then did the couple begin a restrained show of joy.
It had been worth it. Eighteen years together on the ice, two bronze medals only in previous Games, marriage and retirement, then for the past two years back out of retirement into the arduous world of practice, practice, practice - all to provide us with such extraordinary pleasure.
Their victory was hardly unexpected though, in a week in which we learned China had overtaken the U.S. as the nation that purchases the most new cars yearly. The Chinese continue their cherry-picking of medals whenever they discern a vulnerable event. It started in the summer Games in Beijing, and though in Vancouver they still trail on the slopes where European and north American domination continues, already last time the Chinese women were tops in curling. Now in the second week of the Games, we await with bated breath the outcome of that most engaging of all competitions.
The second memorable moment came indeed on the slopes at Whistler Mountain. Lindsey Vonn was all smiles, exuding supreme confidence as well she might. The 25-year-old American had completed a stunning downhill run and was in gold medal slot. Then two of her competitors, who might just have overturned American hopes of breaking their duck in this key event, both came a-cropper with bad falls. Spontaneously Lindsey gasped in dismay, not because her would-be usurpers were out of the way, but in instinctive identification with the pain and the humiliation of fellow competitors. It was most moving.
These were but two of many wonderful memories from the 24-hour non-stop Eurosport action - live and recorded - as we juggled time zones to make sure not to learn a result that would ruin our viewing pleasure. Thankfully too, apart from in ice hockey, the commentators are not native north American, so we aren't bombarded with the sing-song cadence so beloved of their sportscasters. In the U.S. and Canada apparently there's a strict "tenors need not apply" rule; slots behind sports mikes are reserved for those with the deepest of voices. There's a much more varied array of timbre in European sports voices.
Back on the pitches of Europe, French and Irish fans still have a score to settle from Thierry Henry's infamous handball play that sent Les Bleus down to South Africa for the summer World Cup while leaving the men from the Emerald Isle at home. It's the Irish, of course, who harbor the grievance, so French rugby men were clearly intent on getting their retaliation in first, and thus lashed out before the critical Six Nations match in Paris with a barrage of charges that Ireland (last season's champions) "might have a fairly good team," but "they are practiced cheats."
"They have a great defense, true, but the fact is that they're cheating - cheating intelligently, but cheating. It's all very well done," said scrum half Morgan Parra. "We dissected the video and there's not a moment when they're not cheating. If we did the same thing, we'd be punished each time. How many matches have they gone without defeat, 12? Well fine, that will finish at 12 in this game."
What was amazing was that while the French mud-throwing made front page news not only in Paris and Dublin, there wasn't a single report anywhere of what the "cheating" charge was all about. Very possibly, it's because the rules of rugby, especially in the scrums, mauls and rucks, are so abstruse that no one really understands them, not even the players themselves, much less the opinionated scribes and commentators who are supposed to tell us what's happened when the referee blows for an infringement.
Writes our guru Lynne Truss: "As far as I can see, it's a game that no one watching it fully understands because that would entail having the mystic ability to read the mind of the ref. In soccer, when a player commits a foul and a free kick is given, one knows who to blame and can even evaluate the damn-fool reasoning that made him do it. In rugby, there's a load of pushing and then a whistle is blown. What did the ref see? What happened? Will we ever be allowed to know? The fact that players always obey the ref in rugby is significant. Because my suspicion is, they don't have a clue about what's going on either, which leaves them no grounds for objection. Only the ref knows what has occurred. The entire effing game is played for the benefit of its officiator."
So, if in the Stade de France, the French were better than the Irish at surreptitiously kicking an Irishman in the wrong place, or clutching at him in the wrong place, or sniffing him in the wrong place, we just don't know. What is definite is that the French forwards understood the ref's predilections better, and thus they demolished the Irish.
It may of course have something to do with the fact that in their mood last weekend, they are world beaters - as Irish skipper Brian O'Driscoll acknowledged, "Not that we ever thought we were infallible, but you get a reality check from those sorts of game."
Whatever, Les Bleus have established themselves not only as firm favorites to lift this year's Six Nations, but that they are also, along with the All Blacks, the team to beat in next year's World Cup.
It's been a week of other confrontations too: Arsene "when-will-he-ever-learn" Wenger complaining in Porto that Arsenal had been robbed yet again by a poor refereeing decision, and the potential antagonism before the previous evening's Champions League clash in the San Siro stadium between Fergie "dead-eyed-shoe-throwing" Ferguson and David "cheeky-young-blighter" Beckham.
In his Milan garb, Becks was up against his childhood club for the very first time ever. He seemed to have gotten the upper hand, with Man United thrown into disarray in the first half after it had become clear just 10 minutes before kickoff that Beckham was in the Milan starting line-up, and Sir Alex was forced into last-minute adjustments. For the first 45 minutes United were all-a-fluster, and fortunate as a high-rolling gambler on a hot streak just doesn't begin to describe how lucky they were to be level at the break.
But, after Becks had departed 20 minutes into the second half, Fergie's current enfant terrible (Wayne Rooney seems destined to outplay even his tempestuous manager) used his head to such great effect that, although another veteran Clarence Seedhof pulled a goal back late on, it's unfeasible that United can squander their amazing 3-2 away win and should be safely through to the quarterfinals after the rematch at Old Trafford in 10 days time.
Back on the Vancouver slopes the oldest of rivalries, between Norwegians and Swedes, was in full flow. The latter appeared to have notched up a PR advantage with their catty chastisement of their Scandinavian neighbors that they had brought over "almost as many psychologists as skiers in their squad."
The experts, on the other hand, were in favor of the Norwegian tactics, arguing that the difficult weather conditions and the mental conditioning required for complex events such as the biathlon mean an athlete's head needs to be as finely toned as his or her muscles.
Looking down the medals table, however, the Swedes seem to have a point - they're well ahead of the Norwegians. The curling medals, however, are still to come!