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Columns > David Steinberg - Some Are Mathematicians

Published: 2010/02/26
by David Steinberg

Ring Theory

I’ve been fortunate enough over the years to be able to attend many major sporting events. I’ve been to the NFL playoffs and both the 1979 and 1983 World Series. One activity that was off of my resume though was an Olympic games. That seemed destined to remain so until Vancouver, British Columbia won the 2010 bid. With the games a mere 150 miles (and a border crossing) up the road, it was time to experience Olympics fever.

The first obstacle would be getting tickets. Buying Olympics tickets is very different from the process to gain access to a concert. For one thing, it’s country segregated. Canadians had one place to get tickets that was just for them; the rest of the world had their own sites to buy. For the United States, it was COSport. Buying tickets from there had a complication, and I’m not referring to the massive service fees that they charged. The ticket lottery went on sale two years before the event. This meant that we had to buy tickets for events before the draws happened, before we even knew which countries would be competing in the event. You had to buy blind. I chose a Saturday hockey game and a Sunday curling match, not knowing who would be playing. With all of the rumors about tickets being impossible, I figured asking for two events would mean that I’d have a decent shot at one. Instead both orders were filled.

The advantage of having that long lead time is that by the time the event actually happens, you’ve long since forgotten about the money that the tickets cost. I traded a Friday crash space – and free tour guides – with my Vancouver friends in exchange for my extra hockey ticket and it felt like I was the one getting the deal, despite giving a Canadian male a free Olympic hockey ticket.

The presence of Vancouver just up the road is pretty weird. Seattle is tucked into a corner of the United States, so most of our focus tends to be on the south and east. Only on occasion do we remember that we can go north and experience a totally different culture. The border is a mental block in addition to being a physical one, but it also serves a purpose. Canada’s culture would be overwhelmed by the dominant US if there were open borders. By keeping it more restricted, distinctions can be preserved. Vancouver is interesting enough that it’s worth the hassle in order to prevent it from just turning into another Portland.

Hassle? Did someone say, “hassle?” Because that’s not what it was driving across the border at noon. Rare is it that you can get to the checkpoint – admittedly using the slightly more obscure truck crossing – and only have one car in front of you. A few quick questions and I was in the land of loonies.

I’ve attended events that have had spectacle around them before. Even Opening Day at the Safe has some of that as a few streets close down to become pedestrian paths. Nothing I had seen could compare to an Olympics. All of downtown Vancouver was blocked off. Don’t have tickets? Fine. You can ride the zip line – if you’re willing to wait in 4-7 hour long lines that is – or use the ice skating rink or check out the torch or just wander the streets and soak in the spirit.

Riding the zip line

If there was one thing I was not prepared for, it was the display of patriotism throughout the city. Canada doesn’t really wave the flag in a US manner but Vancouver was willing to make an exception for the games. Many cars had Canadian flags attached to their hoods. A man made money by dressing in a Batman costume, holding a Canadian flag, and posing for photos; he was amusing until he started demanding that this 8 year old boy swear some oath to him. The newfound love of the maple leaf reached its logical conclusion when a building was covered with one. Free hint – when visiting Americans think that a flag display goes too far, you’re really overdoing it.

My random hockey event turned out to not exactly be a classic rivalry – Switzerland vs. Norway. In many ways though, it was the perfect game. Most people decided who they were going to root for when they walked to Olympic Hockey Place. In many ways, it was the platonic ideal of sports. We were rooting for excitement, for a good game and a lot of action. If the team we were nominally rooting for (Switzerland) happened to win, so much the better. In that sense, we got the perfect game. There was a penalty shot called barely a minute into the game.

While that was blocked, the Swiss scored quickly after that. However, they then were called for two penalties, leading to a 5-3 power play. Want goals? There were 8 of them in regulation, four for each team. Neither team had more than a one goal lead at any time and each took the lead at least once. If you don’t have an active rooting interest, it was the kind of game you love to see. The crowd switched their cheering back and forth depending on who was being more impressive at the time. Ultimately it ended with a Swiss overtime goal and a crowd that felt like they were lucky to have attended this game.

After the game I rushed back to my car – alas about a minute too late to avoid getting a parking ticket – and drove back to the states. The plan was to go see Tea Leaf Green that night but unfortunately the term “Olympics fever” took a literal turn. Mel was sick and I was refusing to get it myself before I returned home on Sunday, so we just chilled around the house. Jim showed up around 9 and we went to bed early. After all, we had another border crossing in the morning.

While I had attended many hockey games before, I had no idea what a curling match would be like in person. It was going to be at least a little weird since four games go on at once. It can be a little distracting to have players from one game block your view of the one that you’re more interested in.

There were two stories of the 2010 Vancouver curling events and I was lucky enough to see them both. Early in the US’s match I got to see John Shuster do what he did throughout the games – miss an easy shot to ruin an end for the team. It’s something to tell my grandkids! More importantly, Norway was playing Sweden which meant one thing – I would be able to see the Norwegian pants in person! In an event like the Olympics, sometimes it’s something random that captivates everyone. The 2010 games had the spectacle of Norway deciding to wear very loud checkered pants. Their facebook fan page – for the pants, not the team – has over 300,000 people, the King of Norway was given a pair, and I got to see them – the team, not just the pants – in action!

While curling might be a better TV sport than in person – it’s rough not being able to hear what the players are planning – it still was a lot of fun. We argued back and forth about strategy – apparently Shuster’s shot making skills are on par with his ability to figure out what to do next – and made snarky comments and had a blast. Sure curling is subject to a lot of jokes, but it turned out to be an incredible amount of fun.

Before heading back across the border one last time, we took the subway downtown to check out Granville Street. The US was playing Canada in hockey and we wanted to witness the spectacle. I think we never did quite find the right place to go, but there was one moment that made the side trip worthwhile. We were walking down the street when Canada scored the goal that tied the game at 2. A roar went up the street and for just that one moment any complaint about the money spent [1] seemed trivial. It was a very unifying moment; fortunately, we were safely in line at the border by the time the game ended with the US’s victory. I didn’t want to know what a depressed riot would look like.

While I would have liked to have seen more – a medal event would have been nice as would have been one of the ski jumping or snowboarding events – I can’t complain at all about how this turned out. Odds are I’ll only get to see the Olympics once in my lifetime, but it was something that I’ll never forget. Thank you Vancouver for hosting it. Your annoyance was my gain!

[1] Note: if you’re going to get an Olympics in your area, the very best way for it to happen is for it to be in a neighboring city across a national border. It was much more fun watching the games knowing that I didn’t pay for them at all. Not my city, not my state, not even the federal government. Canada paid and I got to enjoy.

David Steinberg got his Masters Degree in mathematics from New Mexico State University in 1994. He first discovered the power of live music at the Capital Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His Phish stats website is at www.ihoz.com/PhishStats.html and he’s on the board of directors for The Mockingbird Foundation. He occasionally posts at the Phish.net blog.

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