Winter Olympics: Protests, plain-clothes police and the happy music of mayhem

MIKE ROWBOTTOM ON the oddball Winter Games
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The Independent Online
THE SYMBOLIC doves of peace had been released at the opening ceremony - inflatable doves in this case, bumping and rising into the grey sky like a stream of air bubbles.

Proclaiming themselves as the "Games from the Heart, Together with Love", the 18th Winter Olympics were officially underway.

Turning from the television, I pressed on with my work until I was distracted by what sounded like someone canvassing for an election. The voice, issuing from a loudspeaker, was that of a woman. And she was speaking in English.

"IOC go home. You are all assholes. You have shit for brains. You are all such bloody bastards..."

Staring down from my seventh-floor window at the busy road intersection below I saw a tall, white van, its sides covered in slogans, driving slowly along with its lights flashing.

"Go home Samaranch. You have shit for brains. Kiss my ass, Mr Prick. I really hate to speak to you."

The rhetoric continued, even though the van had now been manoeuvred to a standstill by two white cars full of men who, I could only assume, were plain-clothes police. Grabbing my coat, I went out to take a closer look.

Whoever the protesters were they had made an impressive job of the slogans, which were Japanese on one side and English on the other.

"One Million of Trees were killed. $20 billion of tax were gone. Dirty noble Samaranch. Burglar Tsutzumi. Sex King Clinton. The Sun Murdoch. Queen Elizabeth spoiled richest. Vatican. Monsanto. Coke. No Yakuza. No IOC. Go home. F--- you s-o-b. Sponsored by Cathay Pacific Airways."

If the Sex Pistols had ever released a second album, it would have done nicely for the cover.

These people were clearly not happy about many things. The van doors were covered with photocopies of a 1989 story in The Sun concerning right- wing Japanese protests against the Queen. The Sun's hugely amusing cartoon of the time, showing Prince Philip baring his backside to the coffin of Emperor Hirohito, also featured.

Returning to my room, I settled down to work once again. Presently, my labours were disturbed by a woman's voice. And she was speaking in English.

"Go home Samaranch. Go home IOC, You are all assholes and sons of bitches..."

The van was heading slowly back into the centre of Nagano, accompanied by the two cars.

Why it was allowed to do so was beyond comprehension. Could it be that the police did not understand English sufficiently to realise what was being said? That seemed unbelievable.

A member of a Japanese television crew, who had also witnessed the protest, told me it had been allowed to proceed on the basis of freedom of speech. That too seemed unbelievable. But then there are many things about these Games which have been hard to credit.

Witnessing the thunderous collision of national egos in the ice hockey match between Canada and the United States, I had difficulty reconciling the mayhem of general play with the music which punctuated it.

Canada's bear-with-a-sore-head captain, Eric Lindros, rips an opponent's headguard off with the ferocity of his challenge. But suddenly all the players are idly gliding and circling as Reginald Dixon-type organ music marks a break in the action.

Play resumes. The US player Gary Suter is slammed into the boards by a double body-check. Suddenly more organ music to the tune of "If you're happy and you know it" breaks the flow. And the audience clap.

The incongruity is fascinating. It's like playing "The Magic Roundabout" at a Mike Tyson fight.

And yet the organisers are clearly anxious to avoid the wrong kind of accompaniment. "Please refrain from making noise that may interfere with the game," we were warned by the announcer.

As curious, in a different way, are the scenes played out in the "kiss and cry" corner of the figure skating rink.

You are a female skater. You have just fallen on your backside while attempting your first triple axel. You have subsequently bottled out of your triple loop and now you have returned to sit alongside your large, fur-coated coach and await the judges' marks.

The cameras zoom into your face. Your make-up is smudged with tears. As you look up and see the first set of marks - 4.1, 3.9, 4.1... - you are obliged to make small talk. Here come the second set of marks for artistic impression. 4.0, 4.1, 4.2...

How wonderful it would be to see a cornered under-achiever rise and give the nine judges a one-fingered salute. I don't know how these skaters put up with it. You wonder why they don't protest.