Monday, July 30, 2012

Dentists - and the Olympics.

Everyone has a good story or three inside of them.  Some people's stories are just more remarkable - and unexpected- than others.  Why we should not expect the remarkable I do not know - but we never do expect it.  People sit comfortably in the grooves of their lives and it's easiest to imagine them rolling happily along; you don't watch for the moment when they skip out of it and careen away - sparks flying and rockets exploding - sideways across life.
            Last week I went to the dentist. I don't like going to the dentist.  Dentists are mostly charming people but the electric whine of a buzz wheel burring across my teeth gives me the unpleasant mimminies and I'm not in a mood to be charmed, or charming, in return.  In all honesty, I'm a crier, and the most delectable of dentists tends to become unnerved by a Tabubilgirl with her mouth wide open, and tears rolling thick and silent down her face while a mild-mannered dental technician applies an electric toothbrush for a routine cleaning. 
            The first time I visit a dentist, things are awkward for everyone.  I have a Special Dental Routine: I put on my headphones, close my eyes, and listen to my Happy Music - which for me is the soundtrack to Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats.  No matter how I explain things in advance, the first time I overflow the dentist calls for technicians and receptionists, who pat my hands soothingly and give me a running update - with mirrors, even.  Two or three visits down the road, we're all in a routine:  I will hum along to Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat over and over inside my head and cry steadily until the procedure is over, and the dentist will just get on with it, save for a sporadic and low-voiced murmur of "Lord, she's off again" to his assistants whenever a drill speeds up.
            Fortunately for all parties,  I have very good teeth.  But every time I move, I have to start the whole routine over again with a new dentist. 

Which brings us back to last week's dentist visit - me flat on my back in a comfy chair, with my mouth wide open, and not quite crying yet because the dentist is still doing his very first inspection and the noisy electrical tools are still in a box.
           The dentist tapped the point of a dental pick against my upper maxillary incisors.  I winced.
           "You've got a couple of caps here at the front."  He said.
            "Four."  I said, indistinctly, around a plug of cotton wool.
            I pushed the dental pick out of the way with my tongue and massaged my jaw.
            "My sister and I held a diving competition in our bathtub when I was eight.  I won."
            The dentist was charmed.  "How!?"
            I sighed. "The Olympics were on TV.  We watched the platform diving and that evening, my sister and I and a friend held our own private diving competition in our bathtub.  Dr Tabubil and the friend weren't completely silly - they stood on the side of the tub, put their hands over their heads, announced their dive and sat down really quickly in the water and made bubbling noises.  Me?  I stood on the side of the tub, spread out my arms, and went for it.  Left my two front teeth right there on the floor of the bathtub."
            "Your dedication is impressive."
            "Thanks.  We were living in a pretty remote community in Papua New Guinea  - Mum and I had to fly two hours to the capital city to find a dentist.  Twenty years ago and she still hasn't forgiven me for it."
            The dentist forebore to comment.  "And the other two teeth?"
            "I was 11. The baby caps on my front teeth fell off and the dentist who did the replacement job had worked for the Borgias in a former life. Today I have four false front teeth and cry every time I come near a dentist office."   
That's my story - a very little story that barely bounces me up and down in my groove. My dentist though -
            "You said it happened during the Olympics?"  He said.  "Which one?"
            "1988.  Seoul."
            "I have been very fortunate, you know." He said. "I have been to two Olympics.  I remember that I met a diver in Munich - a Canadian.  When you said diving, I wondered if you might have been watching her, but of course you're far too young.  I found her again at one of the Pan-American Games -"  He smiled to himself and sighed happily. "Good memories."
            "You said -" I said carefully "that you were at Munich.  What was it like, being there that year?"
            "Do you see that tree?"  My dentist pointed out of the window.  "Maybe ten meters away from this building?  In the Olympic village we were right across from the Israelis.  Maybe that far.  Maybe not that much.  We could see them with the masks down over their faces through the window - and the guns…"
            He shook his head. His mouth was tight, but I was struggling to make sense of something else.  Sometimes I'm not terribly quick on the uptake -
            "You were staying in the Olympic village?  You were an athlete?"
            "What sport?"
            "Rifle or Pistol?"
            "Shotgun."  He mimed a lock and load. "Skeet shooting."
            And he put down his dental pick and told me all about it.

My dentist is a one-time world record holder and a two-time Olympic athlete - Montreal and Munich.  He hung up his gun in 1980, when he was at the top of the world, and he never competed again.
            "It was the Moscow Olympics.  Chile decided to join the boycott - fifteen days before we were due to leave.  And you have to understand -  two weeks earlier, I'd set a world record.  It was my year.  My year! The Olympic Games are so big - I sacrificed everything - my life, my family - and it was my year, and after that, when they told me I couldn't go, I just - I just couldn't do it, not anymore.  How could a medal mean anything after that?
            "But oh -"  He sighed. "To be in the Olympic village. There just aren't words. To be there means such a sacrifice - so much work, so much pride, so much triumph - just to be there-
            And when you go into the stadium for the first time, at the Opening Ceremony, Chile is right at the front - you know, A, B, C, Chile - so you're marching in while its still fresh and everyone is going mad, screaming and shouting and waving and you circle the stadium and it's crazy - crazy. They fill the stadium with athletes from the outside in, and Chile ends up right at the front.  In Montreal, we were in front of the reviewing stand with the Queen of England on it, and the Duke of Edinburgh, and the Prime Minister of Canada  - and there we were, right across from them for three hours, taking photos of course, but this was in '76, not today where everyone has a cell phone camera, and we were out in front and they'd told us to stand straight and be elegant and keep up the Olympic image, so we're there sneaking cameras out of our pockets and snapping photos from our hips and praying that they would come out -" He sighed gustily.  "There are no words.  No words."

There are a lot of things wrong with the 2012 Olympic Games.  Among the more visibly contentious issues is the staggering emphasis on corporate sponsorship over community, in which multinational companies with guaranteed games-long tax shelters have been invoking the full might of the British Police to prosecute any and all local businesses who might be attempt to horn in on their milch-cow.  The climate in London has become something of a farce, where heaven help you if you put up a row of bunting, or - to take one real life example - are a gentleman baker who has displayed five homely bagels in your window in the shape of the Olympic Rings.  The British may have funded the lions share of the Olympics, but the IOC will be damned if British taxpayers are permitted to take a penny's pride in the fact. 
            Inside the Olympic venue, things get even tougher.  You may not bring in food (Heaven forfend that visitors with hypoglycemia or related conditions try and bring a snack through the gates.  Never fear, though, McDonalds is everywhere inside - the best food for a heart-healthy Olympic lifestyle!) or drinks (even water is restricted to levels seen at airports - bottles of 100 milliliters, tops,  which puts pressure on  visitors with blood pressure and other related problems, I can tell you.  Pay premium price for bottled stuff or stay home.)  The silliest in-venue restriction has been rescinded under howling pressure: in the land of fish and chips, the Great Multinational McDonalds attempted to extend its Olympic privilege to banning any vendor but themselves from selling french fries.  Because anyone else selling chips would affect the brand.  That, at least went down under the howling like a lead balloon.
            In fact, a state of such howling hysteria has been reached that one entire police station issued an edict that any non-sponsor snack products eaten by an officer in uniform must be decanted into an anonymous plastic bag or tub if said snacks are to be consumed in public. The IOC has claimed that their guidelines have been wildly misunderstood and are putting on terribly hurt faces, but that level of confusion does not arise spontaneously out of a vacuum - there is a significant level of pressure coming down from somewhere. One can imagine that in 2014, entry security into Olympic Venues  will involve McDonalds employees patting down visitors to find the chewy bars and packets of peanuts that woman have hidden in their brassieres.
            And of course, there is the vicious little kerfuffle over tourist photographs.  It's a solid bet that ticket holders were unaware of it when they purchased their tickets, but the act of purchasing - or entering an Olympic venue under an Olympic Games ticket, gives the IOC complete total and blanket rights to any and every photo of the athletics that they take. Any uploads of your personal happy snaps to any form of social media - facebook, picassa, imagur, twitter - anything, really - is very very illegal.  The IOC says so
            The ban is unenforceable, of course, and the IOC, with a deep understanding of public relations, backed down exactly two whole days before the games began  (It's not that they retract their claim over the photographs, you understand, it's just that they won't try and prosecute.)  but not before Olympic security guards detained a couple of photographers taking photographs of the outside of an Olympic Venues from a public street. It's a weird, and deeply nasty little power play, and seems to be based on two colossally odd presumptions -  that 
a) our personal fuzzy 'I Wuz Here' happy snaps pose a genuine commercial threat to their high-end telephoto lens glossies, and that 
b) it is possible to tell a paying audience - to tell anyone - that their memories and experiences are not their own, and that they may make no claim upon them. 
The level of pettiness on show is unbelievable.
            Completely co-incidentally, local interest in the Games has not been not hugely high.  Tickets are being given away, whole sections of stadiums are being closed off when the IOC chooses to be unsporting and not give them away, and hotel rooms are going unsold all over London.  
            Two years ago, after the winter olympics, I wrote the following: "I suspect that the IOC is squandering goodwill here.  When it comes down to basic economics, the Olympics don't mean nothing - no dollars and no cents, if no-one cares."
            The sentiment seems even more relevant two years on.  When your whole brand depends on popular enthusiasm on a global scale, the metaphor of the goose with the golden egg is more than tangential.  You're infuriating, and alienating, the audience that your dollars depend on.  You're chopping that goose off at the neck.
            And so - I present to you my dentist - and the real Olympic spirit.  Talent and heart, effort and pride and honor sought in honest competition.   We can't take away the IOC, so let's focus on that this year - let's focus on the athletes, who have given everything they are to be in London.  Let's have a bloody fantastic games.

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