Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Early 2010 Olympic Fever Fueled by Koreans

No longer just home to the Giants of hockey

This first test of any of the 2010 Winter Olympic facilities occurred over the past weekend (Oct. 24-26/08) at Vancouver's Pacific Coliseum with a World Cup short track speed skating event.
All I can say is: Ship over as many Koreans as you can if you want to spice (or I should say "kimchi") up any event. Sure Samsung sponsoring the event, as well as having plenty of world-class Korean skaters there, helped but as the World Cup soccer in 2002 showed, Koreans know how to make an event come alive.

The ubiquitous thunderstix were everywhere and baseball's Anaheim Angels of Orange County fans take note, the Koreans are not wedded to these noisemakers. The screams and cheers Korean skaters received from start to finish were just as loud, and it didn't stop there. Koreans were going nuts anytime a Canadian made a move on the track. This was no sympathy "well done, good effort, oh so close usual Canadian 4th-place non-medal finish" cheering as over the weekend Canada's men and women skaters finished second in the medal totals to Korea. Canada bagged eight medals to the sport's powerhouse nation's 11.

To those of you who thought Chicago Stadium was loud, the Koreans given the numbers can match that. This was a crowd of 7,000 without any "Make Some Noise, Lemmings" scoreboard messages orchestrating the noise while the fake decibel metre showed what great fans apparently every NHL arena has now.

As far as the sport of short track speed skating itself, people here are going to be in for a treat. Watching it on TV does not do it justice at all. The spills are spectacular. The passing moves thrilling. The race strategy is infinitely fascinating and quite easy to pick up. Plus we now know why Apolo Anton Ohno is not just a dance star. His 1000m semifinal heat was a thing of beauty. Unluckily he slipped in the Final and missed the medal podium, but he was well worth the $20 admission alone for the buzz he creates anytime he slips, or literally does slip, on those blades.

No signs of Skinny Minnie Miller

After the individual 500m and 1000m men's and women's events wrapped up we got the 3000m and 5000m relays. Now prior to these events, I was anticipating this to be Skinny Minnie Miller roller derby on ice but sadly, especially the 5000m race, they are far far too long. Lap after lap of NASCAR-like redundancy with virtually no jostling for position (basically similar to your average NHL regular season game). Nothing really much happens until the last five laps (so similar to the last five minutes of every NBA game). So even the intense Korean fans were heading for the exits early and not sticking around for the relays to be done.

The relays do have some strong points despite no baton handoffs as the skaters next in line build up speed in the inner oval. They then cut in like experienced drivers (Vancouverite road warriors take note), zip onto the track and are pushed forward by their teammate. Yes, hands on butt and a firm shove is the "handoff" method from skater to skater for the relays.

Speaking of derrieres, those of you who are fans of the big cabooses, you are definitely in for quite the view on some of these physical specimens in their tight body-fitting lycra. Add to that the skaters' Devo meets the Great Gazoo yellow helmets with numbering on them in the high hundreds (due obviously to the many retired numbers in short track speed skating) and it's a full-on futuristic fashion show as envisioned by Judy Jetson.

As far as the overall look of the event, it takes your eyes and mind some adjusting to see a hockey rink ice surface looking pure white with a powder blue center. Then in the middle of the powder blue "infield" oval are three people on speed skates wearing suits! They looked like they fell from a surrealist painting by Rene Magritte and started channeling this famous reverend on skates. These "suits" are the track officials who watch for "impeding" infractions which means a disqualification and the long skate of shame to the exit.

Hall monitors keep a close watch on the skaters

There are also a couple of blue helmeted rink staff (possibly UN peacekeepers?) who skate around adjusting the small cones that mark the track's curved ends. They also pour buckets of water on the ice surface to resurface the ice between heats. Then there's the exterminators who debug the ice or spray for ice weevils...well, I'm not sure what they do and you'd think they'd be wearing helmets, but they prefer the Craig MacTavish look.

The exterminator also shows up to spray for ice bugs

It's all very hands-on low-tech which was gave the whole thing a feeling of a cozy local track meet more than some big bucks World Cup sporting event.

The Zamboni (also pure white with no advertising at all on it) comes out between quarter-finals, semi-finals and finals to do a more thorough ice resurfacing job. That makes for a nice break for fans to catch their breath and grab some drinks and snacks (cash only!).

Don't get the wrong impression on the advertising. It's there as the padded boards (why doesn't hockey do this as you'd still get great collisions especially the bouncing off the boards without the injuries) are covered in ads and run the gamut from Samsung to Cheerios (the "Mad Men" of today are geniuses--"Oval-shaped tracks are THE place to sell your oval-shaped cereal!").

Between sessions there is some serious DJing going on with no BTO, no '70s rock and no country music for old men (OK, one "Cotton-Eyed Joe" tune made it in but that's more novelty hit than real country). That's right--tunes from today! The DJ even managed a tremendous melding of Oasis and Green Day on one mix that truly made the night. Very disconcerting (in a good way) to go to sporting event and not have my ears bleeding from outdated stadium rock (Canucks management take note...U2's "Where The Streets Have No Name" was a hit in 1987...I'll repeat that for those who missed that...19 and 87.)

The entrances and exits of the skaters are also very disconcerting. All skaters enter at one end of the rink and after their race exit at the other end. They also never take their skate guards off until stepping onto the ice. Vice versa going off. (That was just for those of you scoring at home.)

The race start though is the most, shall I say, creepy, but in a funny way. The starter gets on the mic and says, "Go to the start" in some vague Eastern European accent that sounds like Dracula as done by SCTV's Count Floyd that you half expect a trapdoor to open up in the ice if the skaters did not obey this order. I also guarantee you will be mimicking his catchphrase before every race and annoying your friends for the next week with your best impersonation of same.

Go to the Start...it's scary, kids!

Having said that, here are a few things VANOC needs to work on:
1. Have all concession stands accept credit cards. Come on, it's 2008!
2. Get better food. The whole hot dog and peanuts thing is fine at a Vancouver Giants hockey game and White Spot is decent, but the sport is dominated by Koreans! Let's get some Korean BBQ stands set up and show Canadians how meat really tastes when it's sliced thin and cooked properly. Who doesn't love the smell of kimchi in the morning? Smells like victory!
3. Use the scoreboard better. Put the skaters names, numbers, info and times up.
4. Sitting between an Austrian and a Korean at this event I got the question from both sides: "What is up with the French?" As the race goes along you get the play-by-play over the PA mainly in the language of Guy Lafleur. Not sure how many French speakers were in the crowd, but there were a few French-Canadian skaters. Plus Guy threw in some brief token English in his manic play-by-play, but it was pretty much French front and centre ice. The signage and posters for the event were advertised locally all in English, just in case you were wondering. But to answer my international friends' query in my best franglais--"Je ne sais pas mais c'est possible que Vancouver est un "world-class" ville. French is classy ergo the francais-a-go-go, n'est-ce que pas?"

Whatever the hiccups, VANOC just make sure you do one thing: It's all about the buzz at the venues so fill the stands at every event with Koreans. Trust me. That's the key to hosting a successful Olympics.

No comments: