Opinion » Maxed Out

Maxed Out

Olympic dreams and nightmares

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(Prague, VPI) I’m lost in Kafka’s Prague. Franz, one of the city’s most famous sons, has always been termed a writer of ‘fiction.’ I’m not so sure. Wandering lost and drugged on strong coffee and bizarre, dripping Czech pastries, wending my way through the narrow, twisting streets of Stare Mesto, the city’s Old Town, people bearing an uncanny resemblance to cockroaches scurry from shop to shop, disappearing through doors seemingly unopened, slipping through cracks and finding comfort in dark corners of dead-end alleyways.

"Amerikan?" they ask repeatedly.

Oh Canada, don’t fail me now. The Maple Leaf embroidered on my forehead seems to go unnoticed by locals hounding me for news of long lost relatives who, for all I know, may have sailed off the edge of the earth, rumoured to be not too many miles to the west.

"Amerikan?" an old crone tugging at my ragged sleeve asks. She lugs a burlap duffel of empty Moravian wine bottles collected from behind the capital city’s less fine drinking establishments. The local wine’s surprisingly good once you get past the first dozen or so astringent swallows and what’s left of your tastebuds fall into line with the more subtle highlights, described in Wine Spectator as being "Listerinelike."

City workers hang sombre bunting from light standards on the city’s streets and along the walk on both banks of the Vltava river. The 115 th conference of the International Olympic Committee might be an unexpected bonus party for Prague, but the twin holidays that follow have been celebrated for centuries.

Saints Cyril and Methodius, Christian prophets and teachers of the Slavic peoples, are to be feted July 5 th . The day after that is the celebration of John Hus, martyr, reformer, general pain in the butt to the established religious order of the day.

‘The day’ was the early years of the 15 th century and the established religious order was the Catholic Church of Rome under Pope Alexander. John Hus was one of those nagging naysayers. He accused the church of forging miracles. He berated the clergy for living high instead of following the humble example of Jesus Christ. He roused the rabble against the excesses of privilege. He was excommunicated, jailed and executed.

He’d have loved the IOC.

Elsewhere in the city, nearer the site of the upcoming conference, hanging round the lobbies of the city’s finer hotels, you can’t tell the players without a scorecard. Delegates from Salzburg, Pyeongchang and Vancouver are easy to spot. Credentials hang around their necks like so many license plates. Playing ‘Spot the Canuck’ is especially easy. Just look for the most earnest white men not wearing lederhosen.

Spotting the IOC delegates is much harder. The only overt tip-off is the lingering handshake, overly long, often accompanied by the telltale ‘elbow touch’ and followed naturally, nonchalantly by a quick thrust into a convenient jacket pocket, shopping bag, safe-deposit box. So smooth, so practiced.

Outside the Hilton, ground zero for the coming thrill of victory and agony of defeat, a band of Rumanian gypsies engage in the quaint, cultural custom of dwarf tossing. The gathering crowd is amused at the sight and many wonder aloud if this is some kind of protest to have dwarf tossing added to the summer Olympics at least as a demonstration sport.

The spectacle diverts attention long enough to allow non-performing members of the band a chance to practice their other quaint, cultural custom – picking pockets. Slim pickin’s here, Canadian culture has seeped deeply enough into my psyche to make me purchase not only travelers’ cheques but insurance for them as well. The couple of Czech Crowns rattling around my pocket wouldn’t buy a decent glass of beer.

The Suits seem out of place in Prague. The city is a gay – you know what I mean – confection of Old World architecture, New Age sensibilities, leftovers of the Velvet Revolution and palpable aching to find a stride in the new world order. It may be the only place in the world one can hear random strains of Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention playing in public places.

It’s more than a little scary to wonder how the ideas of such a warped musician might have informed a visionary playwright to create a modern democracy out of a subjugated satellite of the former Soviet Union.

The presentations begin. More than a few IOC delegates gasp in wonderment. "Who knew Korea even had ski resorts," I overhear one of the African delegates say.

Truth be told, about half the IOC detest ice and snow and winter in general. The winter games are a poor relation to the summer games and if it weren’t for the free food and drink and ‘gift bags’ from competing countries, most of them would stay at home and not even bother voting the way they’re told.

Salzburg is over the top. Part Sound of Music , part Rocky Horror Picture Show , the presentation leaves two-thirds of the gathered delegates and observers unconscious, knocked out by a barrage of clichés and suffering sugar shock from intravenous ministrations of Sacher tort. How do you spell schnitzel? Who cares? The fix is in. No Europe in 2010, that’s reserved for 2012.

Vancouver’s next. North American slick with a saccharine soundtrack that sounds a lot like Bryan Adams after a lobotomy. Inoffensive, inclusive, polite, Canadian. Who wouldn’t love us? We have Mounties, we have cultural diversity, we don’t invade people very often, and we’ve included our natives.

The head of the Salzburg bid contingent chokes and grasps his heart when the results of the first vote are announced. His death comes too late for sympathy votes. The hills are alive with the sound of wailing. Mozart’s Requiem plays morosely through the lobby speakers. Nice touch.

It’s down to the wire. Will the IOC dumbfound the world and award the games to Korea?

The alarm goes off. What the...? This ain’t Prague. Life goes on at Smilin’ Dog B&B as the smilin’ dog nuzzles my face with his wet nose. Get up; I’ve got to pee and you’ve got to feed me.

Wow, what a dream. Wandering a virtual Prague for Virtual Press International again. Filing stories in cyberspace. Every since my diet shifted toward organic produce sprung from Cariboo clay these dreams have really been something.

Hey, wait a minute... this ain’t no dream. Jacques Rogge’s announcing Vancouver – that’s Vancouver-Whistler jerkov – squeaked past Pyeongchang. 2010’s become a reality-in-waiting. The world is unfolding as it should. Why are my eyes wet?

So it’s gonna happen. It’s just begun. No time left to ponder, equivocate, be ambivalent. Let’s do it... but let’s be vigilant and not let this thing overrun us and leave Whistler something more than any of us really want it to become.