The torch and the trainwreck.

Not gonna lie, I’m pretty bloody excited about the Olympics starting soon.

Now, going by all the people I’ve spoken to about the imminent start of one of the world’s largest competitive events, a few of you might read that and immediately think “Me too! Me too!” Some of you might even say it out loud, perhaps expecting a verbal reply from whatever screen you’re reading this on, a reply that will never come. A lot more of you would probably respond with a resounding “meh.”

The lead up to the Rio Olympics has been even more miserable than the lead-up to the Brazil World Cup and the Sochi Winter Olympics were. At least the Brazilians enjoy football and Russia only hates you if you’re gay, have skin a shade darker than fresh snow or a woman who doesn’t know her place is in the kitchen making Vladimir Putin some borscht. The Zika virus, an unfinished village, security concerns (including but not limited to kidnapped tourists, athletes and Bernie Eccleston’s fuckin’ mother-in-law), more than a little political upheaval (including but not limited to protests by the Brazilian people against spending all that money on fancy stadiums instead of schools, hospitals and probes into public sector corruption), and whatever the fuck’s going on with the Russian team (so the track-and-field team are unbanned but the weightlifting team are completely banned? Is that it? I’ve lost track). The London Olympic games opening ceremony was a celebration of British institutions (the monarchy, the NHS) and culture (James Bond, Dizzee Rascal and the Arctic Monkeys), while all that we’ve heard about the Rio opening ceremony is that they’re gonna fill the stadium with nearly naked samba dancers – in the hopes that a bunch of swinging tits will distract from the fact that half the lights don’t work and the toilets are broken. When Australia’s chef de mission, Kitty Chiller, got angry about the atrocious state of the athlete’s accommodation the mayor of Rio offered to put a kangaroo in front of their rooms to make them feel at home, a statement that I’ve since seen carried on international news and social media (as was the mayor blinking first and sending in repairmen until Miss Chiller was satisfied. Apparently you don’t fuck around with the Green and Gold’s chef de mission).

I love a good bloody trainwreck. And there’s no doubt that this Olympics has so far been a trainwreck. More spectacle than the games themselves are likely to be.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love the games as well. Watching my fellow Aussies compete and/or win on the world stage is always something special, and I’m a competitive bastard. But it’s been tough to get excited really excited about them over here in Vancouver. Canadians just don’t care about the summer games all that much, not like we do back home. Honestly, they don’t get excited about many sports except ice hockey. As any experienced spectator will tell you the energy of the crowd you’re in is everything.

I’ll still watch the games and cheer on the Green and Gold. ‘Cause I’m an Aussie, and it’s in the blood. But what I’m real excited for is watching the spectacle of the Olympics themselves.

Now, we might be worrying (or hoping) over nothing. The games could be a flawless affair filled with completely intentional spectacles without a single athlete getting mugged. But that’s what I’m excited for.

Does that make me a horrible person? Absolutely. No doubt. I am fucking terrible. But it comes from a sense of morbid curiosity. If something is a disaster, I like to know why. I like to see it for myself, so I can form my opinions wherever possible. Not trying to excuse it, just explain.

So good luck Rio. We’ll be watching.

Waltzing Matilda and back again.

Love how the seats of the stadium already wore the Aussie colours.
Love how the seats of the stadium already wore the Aussie colours.

The clouds began to gather around mid-afternoon, with the first few drops falling fat and heavy as I left the hostel to head towards the stadium. It began to really come down just as I threw myself into the shelter of the bus stop where I was able to watch as the less fortunate trudged, sprinted, strode and skipped through the powerful rain. By the time I arrived at and entered Edmonton’s small yet grand Commonwealth Stadium the rain had slowed down to a steady trickle that left my t-shirt damp rather than soaked through. Admittedly this was a bus ride, train ride, poutine, whiskey and coke, and great conversation with a couple of Canadians also heading to the game later. But that downpour had been brutal, and the sky was still filled with brooding grey clouds. I found myself grinning as I entered the stadium when the music blaring over the loudspeakers switched to AC/DC’s Thunderstruck. Seemed appropriate. I grabbed a beer, a Budweiser unfortunately but watching the Green and Gold play in a stadium requires at least a few beers, and settled into my seat just as the women from both teams ran onto the field.

Australia versus Sweden in their final group match of the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup. Green and Gold against Blue and Yellow. The Matildas against the Blågult. It was a fantastic match.

Australia went straight on the offensive, initially maintaining strong possession and keeping it in Sweden’s half of the field with a high-energy, high-speed attack. For a few crucial minutes after the kick-off the Matildas were all over the blue birds from Sweden, before a well aimed kick sent the ball over the heads of their defenders allowed a magnificent run down the centre of the field by Lisa De Vanna and an appointment with the back of the net, leaving the Swedes a little (ah ah-aah ah ah-aahhhh) thunderstruck before the tenth minute. But they recovered quickly enough and equalised before the twentieth with a magnificent bit of passing in front of the Aussie goal. There was more than a little booing from the Australian fans (we’re not the most gracious folk), but I couldn’t help but begrudgingly applaud at a neat bit of foot and teamwork.

With the score tied both teams settled into a long slog, punching at each other up and down the field (thankfully not literally this time… I’m looking at you Nigeria) attempting to force an opening. The Matildas seemed to try and use their possession of the ball to draw the Swedes into the Aussie half of the field to create an opening where their quickness would be an advantage, while the Blågult forced more than a few Corners to attempt to get past the Australian defence. The Swedes were skilled, clever and worked great together. The Aussies were fast, creative and just a bit cheeky, kicking the ball between the legs of the odd obstinate Scandinavian (fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me. Fool me three times? Well that’s just fuckin ridiculous).

I wanna talk up the Australian team, but it was tense and the Swedes looked like they were starting to dominate more than once. But that was what made it such an amazing game to watch, and I reckon when a girl wearing the Green and Gold managed to clear the ball after a hard scramble during a Corner we cheered even harder than when that first goal was scored. We’d think or mutter some variation of “bloody hell, that was close!” and get a few seconds of relief before the ball found its way back into our half chased by a woman in blue and the dread would kick up again.

But when that final whistle blew, mate, I can’t describe the elation of that moment. It may have been an even score but as far as every Aussie present was concerned it was a victory. The Matildas had just needed that single point from a tied game to guarantee getting past the group stages into the knock-outs, while Sweden had to rely on the Nigerians not pulling off an upset (that they’d proven themselves capable, if not likely, of delivering) and beating the Americans. But we just needed a tie. We were through. So we cheered and bellowed and gathered around the edges of the field to celebrate our champions like the conquerors we believed them to be. Still believe them to be. Know they are. Well done girls. You’re through.

Gathering to celebrate after the match. Not the most dramatic shot, but a moment worth capturing regardless.
Gathering to celebrate after the match. Not the most dramatic shot, but a moment worth capturing regardless.

A lot of people were surprised when I told them I’d flown to Edmonton all by my lonesome specifically to watch the game. I was a little shocked at all the shock. Can’t help but feel that there’d be a bit less of it if it had been the men’s team playing. It really didn’t seem like all that big a deal. The Green and Gold was being worn at a major international sporting event. I wanted to catch at least one match, and there was no guarantee that once they got through the group stage (never doubted they could) they’d be playing in Vancouver. So I caught a plane to where I could.

Was it worth the time, expense and effort? Pounding on the empty seat in front of me after that first goal was scored because my own clapping didn’t seem loud enough. A murmur to my left that “Lydia’s back!” after the amazing Miss Williams made a fantastic save. Watching De Vanna grab Larissa Crummer as the former came off the field substituted for the latter, yelling something at the young player. I don’t know what was shared between the two, but it looked fuckin’ epic. Laughing with the crowd as the Ref signalled the two teams to play on after a Swedish girl wasted a free kick straight into the leg of an Aussie girl a few feet away in the dying minutes of the game. The simple goddamn joy when the final whistle was blown, and we knew they were through the ‘Group of Death.’ Of course it was bloody worth the effort.

I regret that I didn’t get to watch the game against Brazil. I was on my way to work, unfortunately, when it happened. I’ll tell you what, there’s a lot of surprised Canadians (and others) who have learnt to respect the Matildas. Learnt they are a force to be reckoned with in international soccer. It’s great.Good luck with the game against Japan ladies. We all know you can win it. We all will be cheering for you. And no matter what you will be our conquerors and we will be proud.GO THE MATILDAS!

It’s just not cricket

Something I did not expect when I left Sydney for Vancouver was how much I’d miss Australian sports. This would surprise more than a few people who know me, since I’ve never been much of what you’d call by any stretch of the imagination a sportsman or sports fan. Sure I’ve played a little bit of backyard cricket and tossed the footy around with some mates and still enjoy doing both, but I’ve never been part of any organised sports team and never been particularly capable of the catching, kicking, throwing, batting or tackling required by most games. Watching games, tests and matches has similarly never been high on my list of priorities. Sure I watched as the Dragons won the Grand Final a couple of years ago, grab a beer and watch NSW and Queensland battle it out for State of Origin, woke up to watch more than a few of Australia’s matches in the FIFA World Cup, but honestly sport has always been more white noise than anything else for me over the years. Cricket or Union on in the background at barbecues, AFL or League on the TVs at the pub, Soccer generally around and about. Really I only paid enough attention to have a rough idea what was going on and be able to hold a conversation with my more athletically minded fellows. Hell, I only went to my first cricket game a few months before I climbed onto the plane to come here. White noise. But goddamn do I miss it.

This became particularly noticeable when the ICC Cricket World Cup came to its (inevitable) conclusion, as Australia beat New Zealand by 7 wickets to claim the trophy. I was working during most of the match, on a long shift crowded with customers getting a bite to eat pre, post and during first a Whitecaps game (soccer), than a Cannucks game (hockey). With my phone not working how it was meant to (the bastard), and the local sports filling the screens at the restaurant where I find gainful employment, I was unable to check the score until I arrived home late in the evening (well, the wee hours of the morning technically). It was probably the most anxious I’d been about a score, count or tally in any sport into which I take an interest in a very long time.

It was also the most I’d spoken about sports in a very long time. In the days immediately before (and the day after), I took every chance I could get to explain the rules, mechanics, scoring, sledging and rivalries of the game with an enthusiasm that would have made several of my mates proud. This was odd because, while I was never one of those people who always needs to inform everyone that “they don’t care about sports,” I’ve never been one for holding extended conversations about the subject. Religion, politics, economics. TV, video games, movies, music. These have always been my preferred topics. Yet there I was the day after the final gleefully explaining overs and runs to a co-worker’s boyfriend so he’d understand what was happening while the highlights played on the television above the bar (as well as the co-worker herself between customers). I’ve barely spoken at all about the shows I’m watching, the games I’m playing or the political situation around here or at home. What I have spoken about is cricket. And rugby. Oh, and beer, but that’s for another post.

I can’t help but wonder if I’m simply trying to fill a void left by moving outside the usual sphere of influence of Aussie sports. It’s hard to overstate the importance of sports in Australian culture. In many ways sports is Australian culture, underpinning both national and local pride and unity. Hell, we love our sports so much we actually care about our women’s teams (and isn’t it just disgusting that we as a general culture still think so lowly of our female athletes that this can be seen as a serious measure of how much a nation cares about athletics). While they don’t receive nearly as much respect, funding and support as they deserve, we still actually give a shit about how the Opals, Matildas, and Hockeyroos are doing, unlike some other countries in my, albeit limited, experience (*cough*). Wearing the Green’an’Gold and representing the Jack’an’Cross* is about the highest honour one can achieve. It saturates every day life, it’s what we talk about, it’s what we watch, it’s what we do. It’s funny how many conversations with Aussies I’ve met over here have devolved into discussions about sports back home. It’s what we have in common. Leaving that, going to another country with different sports on the television, while not jarring, has left a noticeable absence in what I was used to. Instead there’s ice hockey (just called hockey over here apparently).

But it goes beyond just a difference in what sports are on the TV to the talk itself. I’ve found there to be a focus on statistics at a level never reached when talking about Australian sports. We certainly quote possession, test averages, tackles, shots at goal, shots stopped, wickets and anything else that can be counted in any of the sports we care about, but since I arrived I’ve heard numbers spat out about this player or that team at a rate that has stunned me. Seriously, it’s fuckin’ crazy mate. I suspect it might be partly because of the presence of ‘fantasy’ teams (hockey, baseball, basketball, football, whatever) which relies upon those statistics in order for the owner (or whatever they call themselves) to win. The closest comparison I can think of back home is footy tipping, and even then that always struck me as more a collection of guesstimates and evolving biases. I’ll admit that it doesn’t help that when I do hear people discussing plays or strategy I rarely have a goddamn clue what they’re talking about. Regardless it often feels like the games played over here are boiled down to a collection of numbers representing some average effort rather than the effort itself. And there lies the key difference, in my very humble opinion (seriously, I don’t really know shit about this), between how Aussies and Canadians/possibly-North-Americans-in-general discuss sports. In how we discuss effort.

Aussies really do take the whole “it’s not whether you win or lose but how you play the game that matters” idea very seriously. Of course we like to win, results matter, but we also understand that not all our athletes are the best in the world at what they do. Losing to a superior team/athlete in a fair match despite giving it our all is still something to be applauded. Just look at how proud we are of the Socceroos efforts at the past three FIFA World Cups (and outrage at the perceived unfairness of the treatment of the team at the hands of those arseholes at FIFA). Not that we don’t like to win, and constantly losing at something can become a drag (just look at the NSW Blues up until last year, or the Wallabies). But a brutal tall poppy syndrome generally means that we’d rather watch a team give it their all and lose than win without trying. And few things will piss an Australian off than someone who doesn’t think they have to try (just look at the anger towards the Australian Men’s Swimming Team at the London Olympics, James Magnussen became the butt of more than a few jokes). So when we talk about sports, when we talk about the cricket, we talk more specifically about action and effort. Mitchell Johnston’s brutal bouncers, Michael Clarke’s continued play despite an injured Hamstring, Mitch Starc’s left handed variations throwing off batsman too aggressive or too tentative. The usefulness of Haddin’s aggressive sledging and New Zealand’s apparently disconcerting respect and politeness. Yes, we have our own statistics, but it’s more like the empirical evidence used to back up an anecdote rather than the anecdote itself, like what I feel like I hear when people talk sports in Vancouver.

Thing is though I’m not saying that Australian sporting culture is any better or worse. Just different. Not what I’m used to. Like a different language. Given how pervasive sport is in Aussie culture, and given that I’m the sort of person who’s always participated to some small extent in that sporting culture (even if it was just watching and listening), it should be no surprise that the difference would be noticeable.

What does this mean? Well it means that while I enjoy hockey, and I do enjoy hockey (it’s fast-paced, constantly shifting and violent, what’s not to like?), I’ve been unable to develop much of an emotional connection to the game. I don’t much care who wins and who loses. At least not because of any of the people I’ve discussed hockey with. I am a bit partial towards Boston, because I’m a bit of a Celtophile and an old fan of Boston rockers the Dropkick Murphys, but I don’t mention that much since it seems like Boston are some sort of arch-nemesis in Vancouver. Which doesn’t make a whole lotta sense since most of Vancouver seems to take a pretty mercenary attitude towards teams, supporting other teams and only supporting the Cannucks when they’re winning. Yet they seem to maintain a rivalry with everyone except, I don’t know, fucking Winnipeg. Starting to rant now, best stop before I really get started.

Anyway, hockey’s fun to watch. But I just find myself unable to really care what’s going on. It’s unfamiliar. It’s just not cricket.

*God help me that will become slang for the Aussie flag before they decide to change it.