The death of Nodar Kumaritashvili, the luge athlete, just hours before the Vancouver Olympics opening ceremony cast a shadow not only upon the ceremonies, but the games as well.
Announcers were quick to point out the questionable construction of the track, clearly designed to increase speeds up to 95 mph (154 kph), even as Olympic officials easily slid into the role of first denial. "There was no indication that the accident was caused by deficiencies in the track." But athletes who had trained on the course voiced premonitory concerns even before the luge crash. "To what extent are we just little lemmings that they throw down a track and we're crash-test dummies?" Hannah Campbell-Pegg of Australia had remarked. And even bobsled drivers had derisively named one of the curves in the course "50-50" as it was no better than chance that one would navigate it successively.
However, as I read the articles and heard the chatter, this tragedy brought me back to the recent Beijing Olympics, and a similar human calamity, also occurring immediately before the opening ceremony.
In that Olympics a 26-year-old classical Chinese dancer, by the name of Liu Yan, suffered a grave spinal injury during an opening ceremony rehearsal when a stage mechanism malfunctioned, resulting in her plummeting ten feet to a concrete floor below. Liu Yan is currently paralyzed from the waist down, and doctors say she will never walk, much less, dance again.
As in the case of the dead luge athlete, lip service was payed to the bravery of the performer, the sacrifice for her country, the pride of the nation, but essentially behind the repetitive cant was the refrain, "Yes, the show must go on."
But what is this show that is going on? It does not take a sublime misanthrope to perceive that the intended reasons for the Olympics -- the global camaraderie between nations, the shared experiences of athletes, the fair competition -- has morphed into an unwieldy, chaotic, juggernaut- pulled, twisted, and deformed by advertising dollars, cut-throat revenue deals, ratings' wars, broadcast demands, and of course, each host country's almost pathological need to command bragging rights at having put on the "greatest show on earth."
And, again, the officials are blind to all of this. When I heard that the Olympic Committee "needed to study" the reasons for the luge crash, my initial (and visceral) reaction was, "Do we really need to study this? Isn't it kind of obvious that creating conditions where a human being riding an unprotected piece of metal on his back, propelled 95 mph over a sheet of pure ice is going to lead to some sort of severe outcome? But, no, the officials needed to study this. And as the above quote made clear, the problem was clearly with the human.
In China, did the Beijing officials and choreographers have to design a dance routine on two moving stages so perilous that a woman ended up losing her career, as well as the use of her legs? Wouldn't the grace, the majesty, the absolute resonance of her artistry be more than enough so that one stable, unmoving stage would have sufficed?
We have become a ravenous global culture (and yes, this transcends our borders) driven by the next new thing, the next great thing, the next hyper advance and then some.
Is not the same gluttonous force that drives a country to succeed above all others indistinguishable from that which led to our own economic crash and burn courtesy of blind regulators and Wall Street henchmen?
The 95-mph-out-of-control-luge athlete, is he not a symbol for bankers on steroids? Isn't the complex, unstable, malfunctioning dance stage a metaphor for our recent economic meltdown and present stupor -- where a few soared to new heights of wealth and fame, while the majority of us missed the platform and plummeted to where we are today?
The Canada of economic stability, of boring vanilla banking portfolios and storied protection for its population, is now under the gun for failing to afford as much practice access to foreign athletes as to its own. Apparently consumed by its inability to capture gold the last time it hosted an Olympics, it began a program called "Own The Podium" to give itself a major home field advantage in these games. The NYTimes described it thus, "In the end, safety took a back to seat to patriotism." And in a run up to our economic mess, safety took a back seat to greed.
Pundits may wish to state the case that this obsession with novelty, with newness, or fetishistic flash originated in the United States. But one thing is clear. Where ever it originally sailed from -- it has arrived. And it is everywhere.