Well, it’s now five days into the Olympic Games 2012, and I am hooked, line and sinker. This despite my declarations that I was already weary of the excitement and “hype” surrounding the Jamaican track team. The football World Cup was, I asserted, a much bigger item on my personal sports calendar than the Olympics. But there it is. If I was one of the twelve Greek gods sitting on Mount Olympus right now, I would be grinning, shouting “woot woot,” waving flags, painting my face and fingernails in my colors, and generally behaving rather foolishly. (Which of the twelve would I be? Well, due to my birth sign I should be Ares, but he gets such a bad rap. Apollo, I think. He’s rather New Age and likely an old hippie by now).
By the way, did you know there is a Mount Olympus near Salt Lake City, Utah? In Mormonland, no less. It seems a little incongruous, somehow.
OK, well back to the beloved athletes. And yes, they are beloved. I love each and every one of them (unlike some Jamaicans, who love only the Jamaican competitors, apparently). I have taken them all into my heart, until it is almost bursting. My frequent exclamations of, “Oh, isn’t she sweet!” or “Isn’t that lovely!” may have started to irritate my husband, who has not been watching with my level of enthusiasm.
Perhaps it’s because they all look so young. They are young, and hopeful, and mostly very dedicated. Their mums and dads and girlfriends and boyfriends and kid brothers and sisters are often sitting in the stands. It kind of tugs on the old heart strings, quite a bit.
Take, for example, the South African swimmer Chad Le Clos. To his utter amazement, the twenty-year-old from Durban beat his idol, the awesome American Michael Phelps, to win gold in the 200 meters butterfly by the tiniest fraction of a second. Phelps had made an error right in that last little fraction. Young Chad could not believe it (perhaps he still cannot). What moved me was his complete meltdown during the medal ceremony. Unable to hold back the tears but valiantly battling with his emotions, his lower lip trembled uncontrollably as he tried to mouth the words of the national anthem. He was a quivering wreck. Up in the stands, his father Bert, who had been waving his country’s flag, simply threw the flag over his own head in a gesture of astonishment and joy. Do watch the hilarious BBC interview with the insanely proud Bert – link below.
And how cool do the swimmers look, striding out in their team gear from a little tunnel. Some wave cheerily, others seemed introverted and serious, others nonchalant, with wires dangling from their ears as they listened to their favorite i-Tune. A Japanese swimmer bows politely to the audience as he emerges. Then there is the ritual of adjusting the tight swim caps (like a second skin) and pressing the goggles into the eye sockets. Everything tight. When I used to swim, my cap was a hideous contraption with a chin strap that always came undone; it smelled of rubber and chlorine. Nowadays, they look so neat and slick.
I have been hypnotized by the acid blue of the swimming pool water, the lines and the ropes and the whistles. I am absorbed by the images of the huge, glistening shoulders of the male swimmers lifting out of the water in slo-mo; the acrobatic flips of the girl swimmers underwater as they touch the end of the pool; the competitors’ watery embraces as they congratulate each other, unwilling to come out of the pool immediately.
Our Jamaican swimmer, Alia Atkinson, did remarkably well, just missing a medal in the finals of the 100 meters breaststroke. Unflappable and full of an energetic spirit, she seems to be enjoying herself. She set two national records when she won a qualifying swim-off against a Canadian girl and in her heats of the 200 meters breaststroke. She will be back in the pool on Friday, folks! We are all, of course, incredibly proud of her, and I would say she may have passed expectations: her own, and ours.
Oh my goodness. And then there was the little Lithuanian girl, just fifteen years old, who won the race that Alia came fourth in. She raised her dripping arms in joy. Her pink and white face crumpled in tears and became a darker shade of pink on the podium as she collected her medal. Just a girl.
And then…the divers, their elegant strength. The synchronized divers absolutely captivated me, their toes balanced in unison on the end of their springboards, utterly motionless, then at an unspoken signal soaring. Spins and somersaults. A little pool that they sit in at the end, anxiously hovering, waiting for the next dive, hardly looking at each other or their competitors. The men and women divers are so slender and strong. An Italian woman murmurs “one, two…” and then they go, with supreme elegance.
Away from the water, shaking the drops off, I watched the gymnasts with equal enthusiasm. There were the girls, all sequin and glitter – on their eyelids, their pre-teen costumes. They sit on the ground and pull at the bandages that support their limbs, their fingers – so fragile and so strong. Again, the little glimpses of humanity touched me. When a member of the Japanese team – so stylish – realized that they had missed out on a medal, his eyes clouded with tears of disappointment as he looked up at the scoreboard (a few minutes later, the results were revised and the Japanese actually won a silver). The proud parents of a Chinese gymnast stood clutching the bouquet that she had just thrown to them, and no one could wipe the smiles off their faces.
Two other gymnasts delighted me: Sixteen-year-old Gabrielle Douglas, a member of the U.S. women’s team which won gold, was the energy that held them together. Gabrielle left her family in Virginia behind two years ago to train with a Chinese coach in Iowa. I tried to post another photo of Ms. Gabby at age six but it wouldn’t post for some reason. She looks like a girl “on a mission” – to quote a current Jamaican song…
The other was another gold medal winner, the marvelous Kohei Uchimura – he of the spiky shock of hair and impish smile. Only 23 (so he might do another Olympics) he flew effortlessly through his routine. A competitor, Cuban American Danell Leyva, said, “If I spoke Japanese, I would tell him that he is the best gymnast that ever lived — so far.”
Another African American gymnast, John Orozco, made me want to jump up and give him a big hug, after he failed on the pommel horse (a horrible contraption that I developed a real hatred for in my schooldays). He sat down and pressed his knuckles, his palms whitened with dust, onto his brow. He must have felt like screaming. “I couldn’t feel my arms,” Orozco said.
And yes, you’re right, I loved him too, like all those who won…and lost, and did their best.
Some other amusing little vignettes: Firstly, the South Korean women’s archery team, like middle-class housewives on a day trip, wearing those odd little hats. They fired their arrows with a light touch, and after a successful shot gave each other ladylike high fives. But there was a steely glint in their eyes. They won, very politely but firmly. A Chinese gymnast exhaled gently before each portion of his floor routine. An Italian fencer shouted and strode around the stage, arms high in victory, while his defeated Romanian opponent sulked darkly, glaring into the helmet he had pulled off his head. I don’t know if you saw any of the fencing – it was remarkably aggressive and macho. I had thought it was a very well-behaved kind of sword fight with fancy technology and helmets that light up red and super-sensitive swords, but no. There was considerable real-life drama, tears and stamping of feet and temper tantrums in some of the contests, both men’s and women’s. Perhaps they just have too many rules, and they’re all rebels at heart. They want to tear off the protective gear, pull out those wires, and just fight - like in an old Errol Flynn movie. So it’s permanent frustration for them.
Meanwhile, the all-American boy Michael Phelps surged on through the bright blue waves of the pool to break the record for the most medals won by any individual athlete in any sport at the Olympics – a total of nineteen, but I believe he has a couple more races to go. With his big, disarming smile, he has the air of a college student (possibly a fraternity member) who loves to have a good time with his buddies and is not quite sure how he managed to be so famous. But he’s a fierce competitor, like all the others. As an aside, the remarks of our Jamaican sports journalists on Phelps’ achievement left a sour taste in my mouth. They concluded that no, this did not make Phelps the ”greatest” athlete – just the ”winningest” - where did that word come from, by the way? If Phelps had been a Jamaican, I am sure he would have been the greatest, in their eyes. But they can’t seem to see how biased they are, although they accuse other countries of bias. It’s sad to see that kind of blind nationalism. But that is the not-so-nice side of the Olympics.
And then, ladies and gentlemen, there was the eye candy. As one might expect, the parade of stunningly super-fit athletes is quite dazzling. I’ve never seen so many six-packs in my life. I have posted a few examples below and will make no further comment – except to say that the sight of the male divers, their speedos barely clinging to their hips, was really a bit too much for me at my age. Bring the smelling salts, please, quick! (The girls seem to like posing on magazine covers and in ads, so I have included a few of those for you male readers!)
But wait…who do I see on the horizon? Here come the Jamaicans!
wait…Bring on the Jamaicans!
- Mount Olympus: Origin of the Olympic Ideal (thevibes.me)
- Mother Nature’s Olympians crowned (cosmiclog.nbcnews.com)
- The Olympic Games, the Greeks, and God (reflectionandchoice.wordpress.com)
- Moonday’s Heroic Hunk in History: Zeus on Olympus (southernsizzleromance.wordpress.com)
- Father, daughter rescued from Mount Olympus (abc4.com)
- http://go-jamaica.com/news/read_article.php?id=38958 (Alia at it again Friday morning)
- Jamaica and The London 2012 Olympics: Profile on and Olympic Schedule for Alia Atkinson, Swimmer (theislandjournal.wordpress.com)
- Come on Gov’t! It’s Not Just Alia Atkinson Who Needs Help! (newsandviewsbydjmillerja.wordpress.com)
- Olympics 2012: Michael Phelps owns medals record, but is he the best ever? (pennlive.com)
- Jamaica and The London 2012 Olympics: Video of Jamaican Swimmer Alia Atkinson, fourth in 100m breaststroke final (theislandjournal.wordpress.com)
- Le Clos elated after beating his hero (iol.co.za)
- http://gabrielledouglas.com (Gabrielle Douglas website)
- http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/video/sexy-olympic-athletes-storm-london-games-2012-16903555 (Secrets of the sexiest athletes)
- http://www.vancouversun.com/sports/Photos+talented+beautiful+women+London+2012+Olympics/6814079/story.html (Twenty talented, beautiful women of the London 2012 Olympics)
- http://www.buzzfeed.com/mjs538/tom-daley-gets-unnecessarily-censored (Tom Daley gets unnecessarily censored)
The shore was dank with the sour, fishy scent of the sea lions and the retreating tide. The water was smooth and steel grey. The fog elevated every sound across the water. Monterey’s shore was still steeped in the night. Large gulls flapped slowly into the mist that clung to the masts and hulls of yachts and fishing boats.
The Sea Wolf II, named after the orcas – intrepid hunters of the ocean – was resting beside the slick wooden pier, its engine turning over comfortably. The skipper had a lined face and deep-set eyes, his skin dark brown and slightly dirty. A battered baseball cap covered large tufts of grey-white hair. Our guide, Kate, was a smiling, attractive woman with bronze skin, wispy hair tucked into her cap, and a quietly focused air. She is not only an expert naturalist/biologist, but she also created some beautiful prints of whales that were for sale in the Monterey Whale Watch’s offices. (A plug here for montereybaywhalewatch.com. The Petchary would really recommend this as the best whale-watching tour in Monterey. Kate was incredibly nice and knowledgeable). Kate told us about the whales with teeth, and those that have a kind of filter in their huge mouths, “like a kind of mustache,” called a baleen (similar to the French name for whale, “baleine”). The more she spoke, the more information she provided in considerable detail – what the whales eat, how they migrate along the coast, and how the deep swell of the ocean scoops all the food (krill) up from the bottom of the Monterey Canyon for the whales and dolphins to feed on. Krill (those tiny shrimp-like creatures that in turn feed on zoooplankton and phytoplankton – wonderful names) has been bountiful in Monterey Bay this summer, attracting hundreds of whales.
She also had an extraordinary grasp of the details of the many seabirds, large and small, scattered across the waves, fluttering across the water, diving into the waves, flying calmly across our bow. Kate pointed out an albatross, the first one the Petchary had ever seen. The albatross soared over the restless waves, his pointed wings shaped like an airplane, curved slightly, perfect. He tipped gently sideways, banking off into the fog, which gradually engulfed him. He faded from sight, like an old photograph where only the imprint of a shape remains.
Then there were the dark, smudgy black Sooty Shearwaters, who like the albatross breed in the Hawaiian islands and end up on this side of the vast Pacific Ocean. One of these birds, in an effort to escape from the wake of our boat, squawked suddenly and regurgitated a slimy mess of squid and other food.
Kate was very successful in giving us a sense, an almost visceral feel of the ocean. Like the land, it is not a monotone landscape, although we land-dwellers tend to think of it that way. In one area, Kate pointed to the oily texture of the water, where orcas had killed a sea lion and its fat and blubber lay in the water in viscous globules. Elsewhere, she pointed out the dirty reddish tinge in the water – the color of krill, whale food. She also excitedly showed us “whale tracks” – large, smoothed-out patches of water where whales had just passed.
But the fog stayed with us throughout the morning, limited our ability to spot the animals from a distance. At times it closed in tightly, muffling the sound of the boat engine and smothering our voices. At times it lifted, so that we could see the beautiful horizon, and stretches of silvery water glittering in the sunlight miles away. Mostly, the sun was a blur in the sky. When we pulled out of Monterey, a pure arc of white stretched across the sky and into the sea like a colorless rainbow, reflecting itself on the polished surface of the water.
Orcas are the supreme oceanic predators, hunting in packs like “wolves of the sea.” Their communication is so sophisticated and complex that it is on a par with humans communicating in their various languages, scientists say. It was an honor and a tremendous thrill to find a group of them, which we pursued at full speed in the fog, our bow slapping against the waves. Their sharp fins cut thought the water as they hunted, each individual playing its part. Like lions, the hunting parties are headed by a female – usually one past her menopause (yes, orcas have menopauses). We also saw humpback whales – one covered with barnacles that created a mottled pattern on its sides. We also saw a fin whale, whose elegantly shaped dorsal fin emerged from the waves. Kate became excited – her love and awe of the creatures was never far beneath the surface for her – saying it was hard to tell the difference between this species and the sei whale, which is much rarer and has an estimated population of only 55 in California waters. The name “sei” is Norwegian and it has suffered so much from hunting that its population in 2006 was only one-fifth of what it was before it began to be hunted down by humans – by the Japanese, Norwegians and Icelanders primarily.
The Petchary did not mention Everett. A young man in his mid-twenties with steady blue eyes and a strong arm to support passengers on and off the boat, Everett was working the whale watch boat as a summer job, confessing he never stayed in one place for too long. He was born in Hawaii, and like the albatross had moved across the Pacific ocean. He loves the sea. Who could not? As the ship chugged gently back towards the town, past buoys adorned with sea lions and rocks covered in cormorants and pelicans, the Petchary remembered her father’s love of the sea – the tides and the currents, the squalling winds and the sudden calm. He was never happier than when he was out of sight of the land – alone, in the yellow-painted boat, the “Fancy,” that he built himself in the garage one winter. It was a single-handed boat, that he knew every inch of. The little twists and turns of the wind and sea were less predictable, but Daddy loved them even more. I remember standing on the shore, watching him disappear from view, leaning back comfortably and looking up at the sail. Happy.
Sometimes the Petchary believes – she knows – he is out there still.
- Where do killer whales breed? (greenanswers.com)
- Whale watching is an amazing adventure at the Gold Coast, find out when and where to go for the best sightings (goldcoast.mydestinationinfo.com)
The rain grows in intensity. A storm is threatening near Mexico. The Petchary hopes it will start to wash away the uncomfortable sores, the throbbing wounds, the tender bruises of this country that won’t ever heal before they are cut and bruised and wounded all over again.
Even if the rivers should swell and the highways flood… Our island needs this cleansing, at this time.
And a pretty, white Lear jet rises above the thick banks of white cloud, away…
Meanwhile, back in South Africa, the world champions are going home with tear-stained faces, following their fierce opponents in the last finals. They looked so weary throughout, as if old history was on their shoulders.
Meanwhile, the energetic, scurrying Japanese side leapt and twisted and showed off their skills, as the Danes slowly faded. Two sublime free kick goals in quick succession (the first from the yellow-haired Keisuke Honda positively lasered into the back corner of the net; the second from Yasuhito Endo curled smoothly round the end of the wall) barely touched the fingertips of the Danish goalie. The Japanese seemed to become more invigorated as the game went on, while the Danes looked more labored. What a delight!
And can we not forget the gloriously happy fans? The images of insane, monumental headgear (a cooking pot, a kiwi bird, a Viking helmet, a wild wig) and elaborate face paint adorn our television sets every day. Some outfits seem to allude to fairly obscure cultural references, known only to themselves.
But life will be very dull without them, when the competition is over and they all go back to their humdrum lives around the planet…