As I write this, I’m recovering from watching the monobob at the Olympics. Phew. You can have your Super Bowl and your halftime show with the L.A. hip-hop routine. If you want eye-popping visuals and your nerves jangled, it’s happening at the Beijing Olympics, as seen on TV.
As a sport, the monobob has what looks like a lethal modus operandi: a smooth and efficient way to seriously hurt yourself. The inaugural women-only competition was extraordinary to watch. The competitors are alone in what looks like a flimsy plastic cone, travelling at phenomenal speed on ice, up and down a dangerously wiggly track. They do it over and over again, the winner being determined by a fraction of a second.
Kaillie Humphries won the gold in monobob for the U.S.A. Of course she did. The narrative just had to climax with that, since Humphries was, before now, a Canadian competitor in bobsleigh. That ended sourly, with accusations and recriminations. As she won on Sunday, Humphries grabbed the American flag and tried to start a chant of “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” But there was hardly anyone there to join in. It looked a bit pathetic, actually, this taunting.
That dramatic subtext was a rarity at these Games. Mostly, what the Beijing Olympics offer on TV is spurts of visual spectacle, with loads of vivid oomph. The lack of spectators, the desolate locations and the general air of gloom that emanates from China, conspire to make it difficult to form an emotional connection to the events.
At least CBC TV seems aware of this. There’s a lot of pomposity to CBC’s coverage across the platforms, but it does some things well. It does its montage sequences very, very well.
The montage used to open these Games remains spectacular – moving, poignant and, at times, breathtaking. Narrated by former figure skater Elladj Baldé, it begins with images and talk about this wicked winter and then Baldé begins to paraphrase the lyrics to Justin Rutledge’s magnificent song Out of the Woods, before the major chords of the song take over as the images of triumphs, tears and camaraderie accumulate. I was astonished to hear those chords, thinking Justin Rutledge was a kind of secret kept around Queen Street West in Toronto. Look up the montage, it has enormous power.
CBC also did a smart thing the other day, bringing in Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir as special guest analysts for coverage of the ice-dance competition. It was uncanny. She still looks at him with that strange intensity and they have a sense of unity that’s conspicuous. Virtue talked about their triumph at the Olympics four years ago and said she had felt the crowd, the electricity in the air.
That’s missing from the figure skating this time. Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier in the ice-dance competition are good and are strivers, but they sometimes look literally out of time. Their unfortunate choice of early-ABBA-era tangerine outfits gave them the unfortunate look of perambulating, skating popsicles that had, regrettably, fallen into a bucket of glitter. But bless them for their dedication and dynamism.
There is always visual spectacle in figure skating but there are no crowds. And now Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva has been cleared to compete, despite testing positive for a banned substance late last year. With the caveat that the medal ceremony will be cancelled if she wins, everything seems weird and fraught again. The eye-popping quality of performances that can often become electric is undermined.
And while it is sacrilege in Canada to suggest that the lack of parity undermines the women’s hockey team’s journey to a gold or silver medal, that absence of equivalence in quality means a sequence of routs lacking drama, followed by only one game that matters, against the U.S.
Thus, with all the gloom and with the patterns of predictability, we look for the moments of uncomplicated joy that come with visual spectacle. The soaring in the women’s snowboard big air competition, the gliding and flying in the freestyle skiing, especially the aerials, and the awe-inspiring skill and speed of the competitors in the skeleton.
There are few plot hinges left in these Olympics and soon the Games will be over. What will we remember, apart from the first monobob? Not the commercials and not the stilted interviews with athletes. It’s the second, rather grim pandemic-era Olympics in less than a year and what we will hold in our minds is a series of beautiful images and sequences that made the spine tingle, not true drama.
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