After the dark musings tangled within the previous entry, it is time to return once more to happier subject matter. Granted a stay of execution allowing me to remain in my basement hovel for the coming month and for an encouragingly low price, February dawned full of renewed hope and vigour. The unseasonally warm weather persisted, driving away the lingering clouds of doubt casting shadows across my mind, frequently invoking surprised smiles of delight as majestic vistas opened up to crown sun-dappled avenues leading to exciting new possibilities; a casual meeting, a new, enticing neighbourhood, a bend in the road.
One such new possibility had opened up early in January, embroiled within the general chaos and malaise of the new year. On a whim, encouraged by the urging of a friend, I visited an employment agency that had been charged with finding some last-minute replacements for positions involved with the up-coming Winter Olympic Games, to be held in Vancouver and Whistler, the famous sports-village two hours north of the city, for seventeen intense, electric days in February. I had arrived at the agency's office, CV and resolute determination in hand, to interview with the chap in charge of this mass recruitment drive; Dave, a cheerful Liverpudlian, resident these past five years in Canada. Inwardly languid after an opening month with 'Tim Hortons' that had proven itself far from taxing, Dave soon shook me from my lethargy with friendly, incisive questioning and suggestive allusions to a glorious, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to become involved with one of the greatest of all international events that goes far beyond the sporting realm to engage social, political and cultural plains. I was already clamouring to sign up for this fabulous opening when Dave proposed one final, tantalizing addition: spotting the reference upon my sorry attempt at self-marketing to working as a resident tutor with the Cambridge University summer schools programme, he asked whether I would have any interest in accepting a supervisory role at the Olympics. Coming from a quite difficult induction to the Canadian world of work in which I had so far best mustered a position at a sprawling, international corporation tapping into a national caffeine fetish bordering upon addiction, this music to my ears was definitely a "clincher".
February was now bursting forth upon the temporal scene and, having been necessarily distracted by my protracted housing issues, I was keen to refocus upon this swiftly approaching assignment, even going so far as to delve into some background reading upon the history of the Games that did as much for my personal interest as it did towards informing me as an Olympic representative. I do not suppose that mention of such reading piquing my interest is at all surprising to any of you. I was thrilled to discover more of the very local and very significant role played in the formation of the modern Games by a small town that neighbours my own back home. Much Wenlock (yes, that is a real place, Wenlock being an agglutinated Celtic term translating literally to mean 'white place') ensured its place in the history books with the staging of the first modern incarnation of an Olympic games of sorts in 1850. Local athletes and a handful of others from the rest of the British Isles and even from as far as the continent itself gathered to contest a series of track and field events devised as the brain-child of William Penny Brookes, an eminent physician and learned scholar who contended that regular physical exercise held an important part in any healthy life-style, an assertion quite uncommon at the time: indeed, the prevalent opinion of the day viewed physical labour of any sort as the sordid enclave of the working classes, a notion that Brookes highlighted when he proposed that such rigorous activity perhaps held the key to the relatively high life expectancy among persons of this class surviving into early adulthood. These initial games were a popular success and continued to be held each year, growing in both the number of entrants and in the number of sporting disciplines represented. In 1859, the Much Wenlock Olympic Society sent a prize of ten pounds (then a substantial amount of money) to the winner of the longest track race held at an Olympic games in Athens that year. The same year also saw the renaming of the Wenlock games as the 'Wenlock Olympian Games', which were - at Brookes' insistence - 'open to every grade of man'. A series of meetings and sustained correspondence occurred between Brookes and Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the father of the International Olympic Committee, throughout the 1880s and 1890s up until Brookes' death in 1895. Although de Coubertin would later downplay the influence of Brookes and his philosophy upon his own ideas, there is little doubt that Brookes and the town of Much Wenlock were integral to the eventual formation of an organized Olympic movement that has grown to represent its current, monumental incarnation.
Flushed with this proud knowledge, I was looking forward very much to sharing such a tale with my fellow work colleagues and members of the public alike, however; this story of personal Olympic employment success would have no place in my general, embattled Vancouver narrative without a few glitches, a kink or two in the road. Thus it was that despite frequent, dutiful checks of my inbox, I found myself in my local public library one gloriously sunny Saturday morning, reading an introductory e-mail directing me to attend an open induction into my Olympic job that was taking place an hour away from where I was sitting, at the very time that I was reading said e-mail. My sun-drenched perspective disappeared behind a sinking cloud of despondency. How had such a message slipped through my vigilant net of observation? Bereft of personal internet access due to my lacking even a rudimentary laptop here in Vancouver, I had been forced to make use of those computers boasting internet access at my local library, a constraint that I was actually coming to quite enjoy, with its exposure to a social, communal atmosphere and some incredibly quirky characters. Relying upon these local library computers meant also relying upon their scant hours of operation, which are particularly limited at the weekend. My sun-shattering Olympic e-mail had been sent to me the previous day, Friday, at 4 o'clock in the afternoon, whilst I was working at the cafe. By the time I had finished my shift at six o'clock, the library was closed and did not re-open until ten o'clock in the morning the following day, which is when I saw the e-mail. My growing sense of panic began to diverge and become twofold: I was bitterly disappointed with myself for having missed finding a way of checking my messages the previous evening (perhaps through visiting a friend with internet access), but I also experienced a more general sense of unease towards my prospective Olympic employers. Dave had been advising my to expect such an e-mail for nearly two weeks now and here I was with just such an e-mail affording me less than twenty-four hours notice of a crucial meeting that had surely been planned far further in advance.
The small seed of doubt that so crept into my mind germinated and grew with my experiences following this horrible surprise discovery of 'the e-mail in the inbox'. Seeking to remedy the situation, immediately I sent a reply to the Olympic message apologizing for my lack of attendence and explaining my absence much along the same lines as the details offered above. Furthermore, I telephoned the public number offered on the web-site of the university at which our introductory meeting was being held (of course, the Olympic e-mail included only a name and a rather grand Olympic title - there was no contact number of any sort). It being the weekend, the number that I telephoned cut straight through to a public switchboard automative answering system, informing me of the typical office hours, Monday to Friday, and advising me, in all pleasantness, to try again within such a time-frame. I met with the same frustration when I attempted to call the temp-agency, in a last-ditch effort to contact Dave himself, to explain the situation: eventually, I was forced merely to send him a rather frantic e-mail as well. Monday rolled around with no contact having been established upon any front: most worryingly, the Olympic messenger, a woman named 'Jen', had failed to respond to my e-mail at all. I telephoned the university, only to be told that whilst the university authorities were aware that an Olympic introductory session had been held at the campus that weekend, they had no idea who was responsible for the meeting, nor how I could possibly get in contact with any representative from that group. Thus my predicament beccame stranger and stranger, to the point at which I started to question the physical existence of 'Jen', who had still failed to contact me. Dave did eventually call me later that Monday afternoon, to reassure me that I had done nothing wrong; it was the lack of co-ordination between VANOC (the Vancouver Olympic Committee) and the temp-agency that had allowed for such an important message to be delayed until such short notice. Of course, the fault for this lay with VANOC, not Dave's employers at the agency itself. Dave advised me to sit tight, forget about the current fiasco and await an update from him as to how and where I would be used at the Games. Fantastic; very reassuring.
The following week or so passed in something of a daze: I continued to work at the outlet promoting caffeine-addiction and check my e-mails religiously whilst maintaining contact with my friends and family from home. There was still no word from the mysterious 'Jen'. Finally, after some eight days or so since the initial reassure from Dave in the aftermath of the training debacle, I received the e-mail that I had been awaiting so eagerly (although only after one final call to prompt Dave mere minutes beforehand): I had an Olympic assignment; it would be at Capilano University in North Vancouver, the site of my now infamous induction capitulation, and I would indeed be a supervisor - success! I was to report to Cathy: the unfathomable 'Jen' had disappeared, never to be heard from again. In true stoic fashion, there would prove to be one final, heart-stopping hurdle to overcome, when I ascertained from the local public transportation help-line that it would be impossible for me to reach Capilano upon public transit in time for my ludicrously early daily start-time of five o'clock in the morning. Telephoning Cathy to introduce myself ahead of our initial meeting and to inform her of my predicament, I was met with the admission that if I could not attend my job promptly and on time, then there was little need for me. Unbelievable. Yet again, my sun disappeared, my hopes seemingly obliterated: I was beginning to feel - indeed, this blog is beginning to read - like a harrowing Greek tragedy, with the only difference being that there was no Sophocles pulling the strings of misfortune, but instead some omnifallible, faceless Olympic organization. Cathy could sense my despairing disappointment I am sure and did at least console me with the directive to attend my first shift the following day, arriving simply as early as I could manage. Of course, the following day was a Sunday, the worst possible day for taking public transit anywhere in the city, and so I arrived for work a full four hours later than scheduled, at 9 o'clock.
My first day on the job went well, with little to do beyond simply getting up to speed with the location, its layout and my remit as a transportation overseer. I met various members of my team, although not everyone, as we were starting in staggered shifts. I met Cathy that afternoon and immediately warmed to someone who is obviously a very friendly, generous, shrewd lady. After an extensive conversation covering all manner of topics from the necessary here-and-now of the job, right across to our experiences travelling throughout the United States (Cathy is originally from Alabama and now lives in Chicago), Cathy confided that she was impressed enough that she would settle with me remaining as a transportation supervisor on her team, able to come in as early as I could each morning that I was to be on shift, which for every day that I worked proved to be seven o'clock. Needless to write (though I shall do so anyway), after all of the twists and turns in the road, after all of the sinking disappointments and heady successes, it was thrilling indeed to know that my Olympic job was settled and that I could, at long, long last, look forward to and concentrate upon the Games from the perspective of one intrinsically involved: like so many others in Vancouver that February, I too would have a role to play.
Some days later, my initial four-day block of shifts complete and the Games looming, the Olympic torch visited the neighbourhood in which I live; Kitsilano. I happened upon this information earier that very day, trawling the internet in my favourite of haunts - yes, you guessed it, my local public library. Looking up the torch's projected route through the area, I realized that it would be travelling down the main street right outside the library itself; Broadway. With little to do and no particular place to be, I decided to hang around until the evening and then line up dutifully along the route, joined by thousands of others, to cheer the torch through one of its final legs in a marathon journey that had seen it lit in Greece and then arrive on Canada's eastern shores, before travelling across this vast country, moving from east to west on a grand tour totalling some three-and-a-half months.
Lining up on the side of the road, as the sun began to sink on another lovely day in 'Kits', I wondered quite what to expect. As the gloam deepened, so did the crowd numbers grow and with them came a growing sense of anticipation and barely surpressed excitement. People carried cameras, cam-corders, flags, bells, whistles and small children, eager to get a bird's eye view from above the throng. Many of the small, independent shops that line Broadway and contribute so much towards Kitsilano's earnest, free-spirited appeal stayed open and some even offered food and drink to the waiting faithful. Cradling a cup of hot chocolate, munching upon a hot-cross bun, I observed the crowd, picking out individual faces, full of merriment, breaking the mass and its formative excitement down into managable, intelligible sights and sounds. Rumour flew up and down the ranks: the torch was barely minutes away; it would be with us any minute! False prophesies to begin, as is to be expected at such a gathering. Still, the crowd latched on to such murmuring: it seemed that no-one was quite sure of what to expect, as if the torch could somehow pass us by in that discreet, unassuming manner so typical of many Canadians and none of us would notice. As it transpired, we had nothing to fear: the torch did eventually arrive upon the scene, but its coming was preceded by numerous policemen and women on bicycles, then on motorbikes - some even walked past on foot - and all were concentrated upon securing the crowd, upon clearing the road, which had become quite congested by the hundreds of bodies packing in on both sides, clamouring for a better view, a better position. Supporting the police in their job were private security personnel, hired specifically for the duration of the Olympics from some of the most reputable agencies across the land. Next came a larger cavalcade of police motorbikes and patrol cars, complete with klaxons and loud-speakers. Finally, out-doing even the noise of the police came the floats, arranged by some of the most prominent Olympic sponsors and teeming with music artists, dancers, VIPs (presumably, judging by the way hat they were acting) and various assorted characters doing their best to appear to be having a great time, nodding along to the beat, sipping from bottles of Coca-Cola.
This circus concluded, the real anticipation could begin to build afresh: where was the torch? Finally, the cheers further up the road, already quite loud, began to grow louder, to take on a new energy, pulsating down the lines. Yet more police, yet more security personnel and, finally, a flicker of orange, a flash of pristine white Olympic jump-suit and the torch was upon us. People went crazy, blaring klaxons, waving flags, beating drums and strange blow-up plastic tubes that resonated with a dull thump. The crowd cheered, clapped, whistled, high-fived, hugged, shouted encouragement and caught the whole scene on all manner of recording devices: even I got in on the action with the lamentably small camera on my mobile phone. The torch itself was held aloft above the Olympic carrier's head, grasped in a trademark red Olympic mitten that became an enduring visual legacy of the entire Games. I focused upon the carrier herself for a time, her eyes shining, her smile beaming, swept up every bit as much as everyone else in the awe and excitement of her grand moment. Often her eyes were drawn upwards to rest upon the beacon licking the end of her torch. So much more than a simple flame, the Olympic torch for me that night, as it surely did for everyone else and on every other night that it was seen, came to represent a shining emblem of hope. Like the fire of hope in our hearts that must never be quenched, like the sacred Vestal flame ensconced in the heart of ancient Rome, which - if kept safe and coninuous - would safeguard the Empire for eternity, the tenacious, luminous symbol of one of the world's greatest, most encompassing, most unifying of all international events became legend in my mind and in my soul.
The torch swept past and with it streamed a growing tide of running, jogging and walking bodies, each vying good-naturedly, yet with intent, to keep abreast of the flame's progress, to lengthen their time in its embalming, electrifying presence. I joined the moving mass, jogging, dodging, clapping and finally sprinting down near-deserted side-streets to keep up with this burning message of hope. I ran the length of Kitsilano in pursuit of the flame that night. I ran in the presence of greatness, of history being made. I ran with hope and pride and power in my aching legs, in my burning lungs and in the company and the very air all around me. I surged forth upon a flickering wave of optimism, joined with my fellow man and woman, old and young, of every colour and creed, each with a common purpose, a common expression of humble joy emblazed across their features. I ran until my flanks heaved, until the air came gasping and painfully into my lungs and until I could run no more. Still, the torch continued, passed from carrier to carrier every three hundred meters of so and still the crowd ran with it, some dropping out, others taking their place. The torch moved off, but the hope and the warmth it inspired remained, as the crowd slowly dispersed, people departing with a spring in their step. I stopped outside a clothing store offering warm cider, as much for a chance to chat and share the moment as for the much-needed refreshment and sugar. Everyone was full of wonder, natural barriers of social niceties, of distancing, broken down temporarily in the face of a common brotherhood of man, mingled with a sisterhood of woman.
I walked home with a spring in my step, upon a cloud of euphoria. I was there, I observed and participated in history and I was scorched by the great Olympic flame of hope.
Best wishes to all!