Friday, February 10, 2006

Winter Olympics + Egypt wins Africa Cup + Préval Leads

The Winter Olympics in Turin/Torino, Italy (at left, Deutsche Welle), have officially begun. I hadn't previously posted about them because, to tell the truth, I really hadn't been that interested, and it wasn't until I got a couple of emails from Reggie H. (cf. below) and saw the photos of the fantastic costumes on the BBC News site that I realized they'd started. (I actually am watching the opening ceremony now.) Actually, I'd been hearing quite a bit about the US team scandals, such as the skeleton team's fired coach, Tim Nardello, who allegedly had sexually harassed some competitors, and about Zach Lund, one of the chief skeleton competitors, who's been suspended (or banned) for a year because he was using a hair-restoration product that contained a banned, masking chemical, and though he'd warned the US team and his sport's federation about it, the official body changed the rules, and, well, you get the picture. It sounds kind of crazy given that he was very up front about using the product and given that this particular chemical wasn't a problem until recently, but what do I know? Anyways, things aren't looking so good for the US skeleton team.

Actually, I wish they'd go back to having the summer and winter Olympics in the same year, because since they switched, I've experienced Olympics overload. To me, it doesn't feel like there's enough of a break--during which my desire to watch the Olympic competitions built up--between them anymore, even though in real chronological terms, the four year gap remains for each successive seasonal contest. I can barely remember where the last ones were--wasn't it Salt Lake City? The futuristic introductory ceremonies to the games in Albertville, France in 1992 are still memorable, but the 2002 Salt Lake City games bring up only a blur. C. and I always used to watch parts of the winter games, and my favorite partwas the parade of nations. But the Winter Olympics are never as interesting as the Summer Olympics in this regard, since there are always fewer competitors per country and they're often wearing baggy winter clothes, while the latter has more countries and the athletes marching into the stadium usually sport some highly distinctive, sometimes nationally inflected or derived, and sometimes very revealing, costumes.

Reggie H. did send two great articles, one about how diverse the US team is this year, and the other about Chicago native Shani Davis, one of the US speedskating team's best hopes for a (gold) medal, so I am going to try and catch some of those races. I also love watching the alpine skiing contests, especially the downhill race and the Super G; just watching the racers jump out of the gate as the horn goes off and the cowbells ring is exhilarating, and watching them fly down the hairpin turns on the icy hills sends a shiver up my spine. My favorite downhill skier for several Olympics was the sexy Italian playboy, Alberto Tomba (above, at right), who not only won his races, but usually provided fodder for the tabloids. This year, one of the US's best downhill hopefuls, Bode Miller (sort of) admitted he was blitzed during some races, and the response, from his teammates, coaches and the media, was the predictable Puritanism, which completely turned me off, because while I wouldn't want the poor thing crashing into a tree, I personally would much more interested in following the exploits of a photogenic wildman or woman who boozes, parties, has some good public spats, and then brings home the gold than a someone displaying saintly behavior.

I also used to like the women's figure skating when it had some drama back in the late 1980s and 1990s. There was Debbie Turner, who was the first Black medal winner, who was balancing med school, her training and personal issues; Kristi Yamaguchi, the only Asian-American women to win the gold in figure-skating, whom the media basically seemed pressed to pay attention to; and the enthralling scandal involving the working-class "girl from Clackamas County, Oregon," Tonya Harding (at left) who arranged to have thugs wallop the leg of her chief competitor, the Massachusetts sweetheart, Nancy Kerrigan! That was one of the best reality shows ever to come on TV! I'll never forget Kerrigan lying on the floor, crying out, "My leg, my leg!" as the cameras rolled. Ukraine's entry in those Olympics, Oksanna Baiul, didn't really become interesting until after she'd won the gold medal, and then fell into the usual US celebrity patterns of outlandish behavior, including drunk-driving, before she had her moment of redemption, etc. Then there was France's ice-skating competitor, Surya Bonaly, always in singular outfits and bad makeup that never suited her, who was always doing astonishing flips but never getting the highest scores. I don't remember hearing that there'd be any excitement like these past competitors provided, so I probably will skip the women's ice skating. In the men's competition, there's one American competitor, Johnny Weir, a native (?) of Newark, who supposedly described himself as "princessy." I love it. Rudy Galindo was the last out gay man to compete for the US, but I maybe the "princess" will surprise us, and bring home a medal as well.

Santino's Hideous OutfitUpdated: The drama in US women's figureskating is already underway, as two-time Olympic medalist Michelle Kwan is now declaring that because of the flight and her participation in the opening ceremonies parade, she's suffering a recurrence of a groin injury which may keep her off the ice. Kwan, who won a silver in 1998 and a bronze in 2002, was not expected to medal this year, but her talent and competitiveness are such that it wouldn't have been out of the question. If she drops out, it'll mean a reshuffling of the US's female entrants in the competition. (Maybe someone can convince her to wear Project Runway über-narcissicist Santino's Thanksgiving turkey ice-skating outfit (at right, Project Runway) to provide viewers with an unforgettable image from these games.)

I used to always watch the bobsled competition, which was dominated for years by the Communist Bloc, especially East Germany. Then there were the Jamaican and other Caribbean entrants trying to make their mark. It's another one of those rapid-fire sports that looks extremely dangerous and gets my heart racing. In Salt Lake, a sister won a gold medal in the women's pairs competition, the first ever in the Winter Games. I'm not sure who the top teams are this year, but I'll probably try to catch some of the bobsledding.

Then there's the speedskating. In addition to Shani Davis (at left) other potential American medalists include Derek Parra, Chad Hedrick and Apolo Anton Ohno (below, at right), who brought the "soul patch" to national popular consciousness during the Salt Lake City games. He also got into a tiff with a Korean skater, who ended up being disqualified, which gave Ohno the gold in one of his races, so I am hoping there'll be some drama in their races this time through. The women's speedskating used to be dominated by the Dutch and German women, but now that China is going all out, I do want to see how well their team does in both the men's and women's races.

There are some Winter Olympic sports I haven't ever followed, like curling. I'm sure it's compelling enough if you're participating, but from what I recall, it involves ice, a thing that looks like a spittoon and a broom, and people crouching down and yelling and blowing. Uh huh. Canada is supposedly very good at it. As they are in ice hockey, which hasn't been that exciting since 1980, when the US team defeated the Soviets for the gold. My money is on the Canadians, the Czech Republic or Russia for this year's gold in ice hockey, though the US squad consists mostly of NHL players.

::Well, I'm actually watching the opening ceremony tonight, and the pre-parade bits were beautifully choreographed. The pageantry always strikes a deep chord in me. The parade of nations so far has been interesting as well. The flagbearers' dresses, which are supposed to look the Alps, are great. Bob Costas is, as always, a font of obscure but interesting information, like the facts that there are 6 African countries competing, that Iceland's capital has more discos per capita than any country north of the equator (!), and that the Moldovans are so poor that people in a town near Turin/Torino are collecting money to play their expenses. It's also wild to hear the 1980s pop, new wave and R&B the Italians are piping in to accompany the parade; this was the soundtrack to my young adulthood, but it works really well here. The American participants are mugging and chatting on cellphones (yes, there really is a phonecall that is that important someone had to stay on it while marching in!) to it (Aretha Franklin's "Freedom" to be specific). The US First Lady looks suitably medicated, with that strange rictus smile she often sports, but that could be because she recently met with the new pope. I'd think she'd be utterly relaxed being so far away from the steadily accruing messes created by her husband. Free delicious pasta and red wine on a paid vacation would relax me. Sofia Loren, Isabel Allende, Susan Sarandon, Nawal el Moutawakel, and the other women who carried the Olympic flag were the epitome of dignity, while Yoko Ono nearly managed to steal the show with her presentation of her late husband John Lennon's peace poem. Truth be told, the world needs peace now, and badly.

Let the games begin!


Egypt (at left, BBC) and Ivory Coast played a tight, scoreless game, with both teams missing some excellent scoring chances in today's Africa Cup of Nations soccer championship.

In one such miss, Ivorien star Didier Drogba sent a sure goal right above an empty net. So it came down to penalty kicks.

Egypt hit 4 to Ivory Coast's 2, giving the host country its fifth African Cup championship overall, and the most of any team in the competition's history. It's too bad they didn't qualify for the World Cup!


PrévalSo far, former Haitian president (1996-2001) René Préval, the 68-year-old agronomist who was once closely linked to deposed former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, is leading the presidential polls at about 50.8%, with about half of all the votes counted. Yesterday's initial tallies, mainly from the capital, Port-au-Prince, and its necklace of slums and suburbs, showed Préval leading by about 68%, but coastal and outlying provinces have dropped his totals; he must achieve the 50% mark to avoid a run-off.

Former deposed president Leslie Manigat is currently polling second at 11.4%, while millionaire businessman Charles Henry Baker is third at 8%. Baker's already sullying the waters by alleging fraud, though international observers and the US have stated that despite the disastrous conditions at the start of voting on Wednesday, the election was generally fair and legitimate.

A reluctant candidate, Préval faces numerous challenges. The wealthy and political élites, who constitute the main parliamentary opposition, are primed to challenge his rule because most of his support has come from the country's impoverished majority, including partisans of the pro-Aristide Lavalas Family Party. Yet Préval is no longer a member of Lavalas, and cannot be assured of control over its political gangs. Then there is the problem of the coup plotters, some of whom, like Guy Philippe, also ran for office, and will want access to power; many of the militants who participated in Aristide's ouster have not surrendered their guns. Add to this the United States, which since the selection of Warrantless Wiretapper in 2000 has made life hell for Aristide, withholding money, supporting the intransigence of the opposition, and conspiring with anti-democratic elements to drive Aristide from power, which occurred in 2004. US Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roger Noriega, who is alleged to have played a key role in forcing Aristide out, has issued threats to Préval about any connection with his "twin," Aristide, including allowing the exiled leader to return from South Africa. Préval, for his part, has said that Aristide is free to return, but may still have to face trial.

His main immediate challenges when he finally wins will be to cajole or convince the opposition to cooperate, to keep Lavalas calm, to tread carefully with the coup plotters, and to get any and all financial help he can to rebuild the country's infrastructure and create jobs. In his previous tenure, he was able to achieve at least a few of his goals, so there is hope. But it will be very, very difficult, even with his "twin" now a continent away.

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