There's more than one way to approach to the Winter Olympics unfolding in that apparently godforsaken place, Sochi. Here's one.
The other day I left work and tramped along the street here in Toronna. Slipping on snow and a bitter wind blowing every which way. There were a lot of us, hunched over, slogging along. I passed a poster on a shelter at a streetcar stop. "We are winter," it said, promoting the Sochi Games.
Oh, sure, says I to myself. What we are right now is longing to be on a beach in the Caribbean. Or L.A. Even L.A. would do. This "we are winter" thing is an empty slogan, a con-job to make us watch people doing stuff on the snow and ice and pay attention to commercials for fast food and Canadian Tire. And, while we're doing that, ignore the fact that Russia is using the Sochi Games to promote itself and command tolerance of its appalling official culture of homophobia.
And then there's the utter waste we're not supposed to think about as we mindlessly ponder the fate of Canada in men's hockey. These games cost more than $50-billion and the upshot is that facilities for athletes and media are poor, the locals are furious and there seem to be more cops wandering around than athletes or spectators. Isn't it just a lie that the Olympics are a fine institution, a global celebration of sporting endeavour, when in reality, we're turning a blind eye to corruption and totalitarianism?
I've nothing against global sporting events. I've been to many. The World Cup. Multiple Euro tournaments. On content after continent I've seen why sport matters. Seen countries and cities transformed into joyful places through sport. Where's the joy in Sochi? I'm writing this before the opening ceremonies unveil the official start, and I'm pretty sure the joy is going to be limited to a few people in this neck of the woods who swallow tall that "we are winter" sloganeering.
Another thing about the Winter Olympics – it's always the bloody same. It's about individuals and only a handful of team sports events. The deification of individual effort in obscure winter events is, to a lot of people, simply mad. Narcissistic mad.
The morning after slogging through the snow, I tried to get on board. I watched the figure skating team event – pairs short. This was early going in the Winter Olympics but, dear heavens, it all looked outlandish. For a start, there was a small audience at the rink. Occasional cheers, mostly from the teams competing, echoed and echoed around the venue.
First performance I saw featured Narumi Takahashi and Ryuichi Kihara of Japan. They skated. The commentators prattled away. Then, from Great Britain, Stacey Kemp and David King. The lady in pink and the man in a pink shirt. The kind of outfits that, heaven help us, appeared to be inspired by ABBA, circa 1974.
A commentator said: "Someone can sneak in and take the gold. And that's the magic of the Olympics for you." Like the "we are winter" slogan, this is sports-talk cant. People are watching to ogle the outfits and see if somebody falls down. Magic, my posterior.
After thirty minutes of this, I'd become familiar with the two main commercials. Canadian Tire elbowed in occasionally to declare that "we all play for Canada." That is merely piffle. What was egregious was the number of times McDonald's arrived to inform us that 20 McNuggets, fries, drinks and a box of cookies amount to a meal "perfect for fans." Indeed, if you want to be an obese fan. What else did I learn? Well, while a pair from Ukraine skated, I was informed that: "There are only three figure skating training rinks in that entire country." Indeedy. But I suspect that's the last thing on the minds of Ukrainians right now.
My point, and I do have one, is that the Winter Olympics, more than any other sporting event, is built on a series of lies that we happily buy into. We think we are the champs of winter in everything. It does us good to believe that. Patriotism is, on occasion, a very useful thing. We park our skepticism somewhere and retrieve it later. An escape from the reality of the mess we're in, or an escape from the need to facing the hatred and repression that exists in other countries, such as the one hosting these Olympics.
We get on board, eventually. That's the thing. We are commanded to do this, by instinct and the persuasive efforts of broadcasters and marketing companies. I'm sure there's fun to be had. I'll get on board, too. Promise. When are Tessa and Scott skating? When is the women's curling on? Are we not winter, whether we like it or not?
When Jews Were Funny (SuperChannel, 8 p.m.) is Alan Zweig's documentary, winner of best Canadian feature at TIFF last year. Disliked by some critics, it's very Zweig – a meandering conversation about a topic not always clear to the viewer, but eventually crystal clear and illuminating. His aim is to discuss with Jewish comedians the matter of whether being Jewish makes you funnier than others. The answers depend on age, really, and that's what makes it all matter.