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Saturday, November 27, 2021

How hope and joy can turn to tears

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A pall was cast over the celebrations, with the death of Georgian luger, when the world’s writers, for a moment, had nothing to say


There was no noise for a long time in the massive hall where the reporters work at the Vancouver Olympics. Nothing but silence for a long time. What you could hear were helicopters and seaplanes taking off, the great buzzing rolling in off the water, magnified by the mountains.

Afterwards, after the news came, you could wonder how many were headed up to Whistler, where the Georgian luger had died. His name was Nodar Kumaritashvili. He was 21.

The news came across the wire at 12:34. It seemed to sink in slowly, taking the room quietly. For a long time no one said much, and no one knew much. Georgia: one of those new countries trying to make its new way in the world, full or extravagant hopes. No one knew of any Georgian journalists.

All over the hall, the great cavern of the media, where information is everything, nothing happened. There are TVs everywhere, massive screens and also smaller ones – by small I mean 36 inches, small for this place. The sound is always off. There was news of the death in the room, but the pictures on the television were of people celebrating on the streets of Vancouver, where the torch has been tying up the streets all day, where people have been laughing and touching torches, the fluorescent greens and yellows of their happiness. Yaletown, the chiron on the TV said. People were happy in Yaletown.

Later in the afternoon they all went dark. Patches of black.

The death seemed to sink in slowly. People had spent the morning writing, or figuring out what to write about, trying to find something to write about that no one else would write about. Then, suddenly, everyone knew what everyone would be writing about.

It was grey outside, the clouds hanging over the green mountains on the other side of the inlet we can see from here. The neighbourhood called British Properties across the inlet, like a shaved spot in a head of green hair. Beautiful, but grey, and a light wetness over everything. The Olympic rings on a barge in the middle of Coal Harbour. It suddenly seemed like the right name.

I went out there and suddenly started to cry.

I don’t know why, I didn’t know him, it was not completely unthinkable: he was, after all, doing a terribly dangerous thing, hurtling at 88 miles an hour down a furrow of ice. He had the accident in a covered tunnel. I don’t know why I cried. I had seen a girl crying on a balcony that morning, on my way into the great hall of communications, the cavern where people do nothing but communicate, but where what we had to communicate now was so empty and stark. There was everything to say and there was nothing to say.

He had died.

Or maybe it was that the Vancouver Games, that had started with so much hope and happiness and beauty everywhere, these great yearning Vancouver Games, were now marked with tragedy.

“It’ll cast a pall over the celebrations tonight,” a woman next to me said, as the reporters waited for Jacques Rogge, the president of the International Olympic Committee, and VANOC CEO John Furlong, to come out.

In front of me I could see the footage on someone’s notebook computer. The terrible pictures, the young man flung out of the sled like scrap thrown out the window of a car, the blood in the helmet, the medical people trying to revive him. He died in the hospital, they said.

The press conference started 12 minutes late, unusual at these beautifully prepared and planned games. “It’ll be interesting to see what they do with it,” the woman next to me said. She was, she said, an employee at the British Columbia government.

“Communications,” she said. The background behind the microphones, the background that would show up on television and elsewhere all over the world, was the well-known blue and green and silver curves of VANOC’s branding imagery, but the curves meant something different now, the curves were deadly now.

Jacques Rogge spoke first, but before that he took his glasses off and pinched his eyes. He looked grey, sad, elegant. “I’m sorry it’s a bit difficult to remain composed.” And then the phrases: “lost his life” and “fatal accident” and “I have no words” and “We have been phoning the Olympic Committee of Georgia.” Then John Furlong spoke. John Furlong, who has spent the last 10 years of his life making sure these were the best Games ever staged. He looked as if someone had pulled the battery out of him. Crestfallen and wrecked and sad.

More phrases then: about how the luger with the long name and the bright hopes had come to Canada to compete with hopes and dreams , that he was said to have been a very spirited person. “We are heartbroken beyond words,” Furlong said. “I’m so sorry.” And “It’s not something I prepared for.” Pole-axed.

Christ, it was sad, almost as sad as the man’s death. The wrecked expectations of it all. There were questions: would they close the track down? Was the track too fast and too dangerous? Because there had been reports of crashes. “When we know the substance of what happened, you will know it,” Furlong said. An investigation was being carried out.

But Rogge would not answer. “I’m sorry, this is a time of sorrow. It’s not a time to look for reasons.” Then they got up and left. Eight minutes.

One wonders if it was the best way to handle it, to communicate tragedy as everyone readied themselves to celebrate, but what other way is there to handle something like that, something so deadly on the cusp of something so huge and bright, that might have been?


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