Monday, February 17, 2014

Another Olympics, Another Scandal

So Canada is the alleged victim in another Olympic figure skating scandal, this time in ice dance. There are the usual calls for ending all judged sports at the Olympics, as if questions about fairness arise only in judged sports. (I guess these people haven’t heard about questionable calls by referees in team sports.) Every sport is plagued by allegations of unfairness, and there is rarely much recourse: the decisions of officials are almost always final.

In this case, rumors of dirty dealing started early. During the team event at the beginning of the Games, Canadian skaters were apparently subjected to drug tests that seemed aimed to disrupt their performances: some were awakened in the middle of the night; one was disturbed during her pre-performance nap. (Drug tests are typically held after a performance, not before.)

Next up, a magazine in France called L’Equipe reported an anonymous source saying that US and Russian judges had entered a deal to give the team event gold to Russia and the ice dance gold to the US. I suspect that this “anonymous source” was a con to mess with Canadian skaters: provoke a reaction, cause an anti-Canada backlash, and throw the skaters off their game. In 2002, there was collusion between the Russian and French judges, but this allegation involves Americans, who have a lot more credibility.

The team event involves all four figure skating disciplines, each of which has its own judges. Rigging it would be a heck of a big conspiracy. In the end, Russia won gold by a landslide, with 75 overall points to Canada’s second place finish of 65. There were the usual questions about the judging (such as Evgeny Plushenko beating Kevin Reynolds), but there were no signs of egregious judging. Russia medaled in every leg of the competition, and won gold in most of them.

Then we had the short program in ice dance, which Davis/White won, 2.5 points ahead of Virtue/Moir. The main reason for DW's win was the difficulty level given to the Finnstep portion: VM were awarded a difficulty level of 3, while DW got a 4. Finnish ice dance legend Petri Kokko (who invented the Finnstep) stirred things up with two tweets yesterday: "I don’t understand the judging in #icedancing. @Virtue_Moir should be leading in my honest opinion." and "Hope @Virtue_Moir wins. Americans timing off in the #finnstep and restrained even otherwise."

The Globe is critical of the judging, but admits that "the most tangible difference between their two performances appeared to be a small bobble by Virtue and Moir in their Finnstep segment." A small bobble could make the difference between a 3 and a 4. (In fact, that had already happened to VM twice this season.)

According to our own CBC commentators during the Davis/White performance, Davis/White have not been defeated since the World Championships in 2012, and they have set six world records with their short dance - this performance is just the latest time they've broken their own record.

The history is this: DW and VM are close friends; they train together and share a coach; White and Moir have been friends since childhood. For the last five or six years they have been the top two teams in the world. For the first several years of that period, VM consistently topped the podium, and then DW got the edge.

Their scores tend to be extremely close, but they’re very different skaters. As the Washington Post wrote yesterday, “Virtue and Moir are fighting to solidify their legitimacy as the best ice dancing team since Great Britain’s Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean. They are a team of exquisite detail – pointed toes, extension body lines – and have tremendous chemistry on the ice. Davis and White are different. They are rugged and powerful and fast.” To my eye, White looks a little rough around the edges: in particular, his leg extensions are poor, he doesn't have great artistic interpretation, and he's sort of heavy on the ice - the opposite of light and elegant.

Sports is full of questionable acts, and figure skating has an atrocious history of skating scandals: judges caught on camera colluding; a brave Canadian judge who gathered evidence of cheating but was suspended by the ISU for doing it; decades of dominance by Russian skaters that seemed dubious at best. Within the Russian competitions, scandals have been even bigger: skaters’ cars getting blown up the day before a competition, a skater’s fiancĂ© being kidnapped.

But after the 2002 Salt Lake City fiasco, the ISU cleaned itself up. Scores are based on well-defined criteria now; judges’ scores are anonymous (so it’s more difficult to pay them off); high and low scores are kicked out. Insiders say that the sport is a lot fairer now. One big piece of evidence for the success of the new rules is this: the Russians no longer dominate ice dance.

I'm no judge, but I'm not bothered about the outcome of the Olympic ice dance contest, for a number of reasons.
  • Both teams skated beautifully, along with the rest of the field, so the event was a treat to watch.
  • I do not believe that American judges would get messed up in a cheating scandal with the Russians.
  • Even if the Americans were unscrupulous, there was no need to fix this fight: Davis and White have been besting Virtue and Moir all season.
  • Virtue and Moir are already Olympic champions, from 2010.

Virtue and Moir's influence will resonate for a long time for their hard work, athleticism, artistry, fine lines, ability to put down their finest performances in the highest stakes competitions, and their ability to simultaneously be tough-as-nails competitors and friendly collaborators.

Winning in figure skating is about adding up points on elements, and Davis/White got the most points today. I firmly believe that Virtue and Moir are the greatest ice dancers in the world, and their silver medal does not diminish that. The Canadian commentators even said today that after attaining Olympic gold in 2010, VM made a conscious effort to do things in their programs that advanced the sport, rather than single-mindedly going after points.

I can't wait to see what they do next.

Saturday, February 15, 2014


Artists create ice sculptures while people skate in the background, at Winterloo 2014 today:

I like community events that are community celebrations. What could be better than an Urban Iditirod (a pub crawl by people pushing each other in shopping carts) or a Zombie Walk or Parade of the Species? The Ice Dogs Festival was one of those charming events: it was organized by people who love ice and love dogs, and it wasn't afraid to be goofy. Here's my glowing review of the 2010 event: Ice Dogs.

A couple of years ago someone apparently decided that Ice Dogs needed a more professional approach, and they rebranded it as the Winterloo Festival, which is on this weekend. Gone are the contests for people who look like their dogs. Gone is the free food and carnival atmosphere. Gone are most of the dogs. And there didn't seem to be nearly as many people, either. (What there appears to be more of is play events for small children, which is nice but shouldn't be so much the focus.)

One decision I applaud was to combine Winterloo with the Uptown Family Day celebration (which used to be on separate weekends), and so create a three-day event. That's cool. But the rest: meh. As far as I can see, they took a charming and popular local festival and they turned it into something bland and boring.

My first career was in market research and I can't help myself from doing surveys all the time - I walked into most of the establishments in Waterloo Square today and asked how uptown festivals affect their business. The consensus was: for restaurants, festivals boost business a bit; for retail, they're a detriment. The shops in Waterloo Square are hanging on by a thread these days (another one, the shoe store, is closing) and I wish we were doing more to boost them.

Winterloo desperately needs to more fully engage the community. Let's add a kazooba band parade or some winter flash mobs. This festival is falling splat in the middle of Canada's biggest winter sporting event - the winter Olympics - so why aren't there some fun Olympic-themed events? Prizes could be gift certificates to shops in Waterloo Square (after all, they're losing business because there's no parking this weekend). And where's the interesting food? This year there are two food stands: hot dogs and popcorn (neither free). Aren't there local businesses that would like to sell us some street food?

I realize that volunteers have put a lot of hard work into Winterloo, and I apologise for being critical, but I perceive a change in the uptown that I don't like. It's a change from amateur to professional, from quirky to bland, from bottom-up to top-down. I have all kinds of respect for the people who manage the Public Square and I'm not sure quite what the problem is, but nothing is as fun as it should be.

A final crabby note: someone should have cleared the snow around the public seating. Sure it's -9, but it's sunny and it would have been nice to be able to hang out.

Here's the Winterloo schedule of events for this weekend: Schedule

Chili Cook-Off in Uptown

I take my chili seriously. One of the nicest things anyone ever did for me occurred a number of years ago when a colleague brought a container of his chili to work - and his recipe. He used coffee, cocoa, beer, cumin and oregano in his chili. I have been riffing off that recipe ever since.

At today's 4th annual Uptown Waterloo Chili Cook-Off, the people's choice award and judge's award both went to Dana Shortt Gourmet. Here is my assessment.

Winner: Taco Farm
This was a sophisticated chili. Instead of simmering everything together for a long time, it tasted like some of the ingredients were mixed in at the last minute. The base was smoked beef shoulder in a light-colored, smoky-hot sauce. Along with that came crunchy vinegar-marinated sweet onion slices, fresh corn kernels, chopped jalapenos and fresh cilantro. The chili was arguably a tiny bit too sour when eaten with a spoon, but it was perfect on a homemade tortilla chip (which they provided). This is a recipe I am going to try to replicate.

The Taco Farm team dressed up like Mexican wrestlers:

Runner Up: McMullans
McMullans dished up a classic ground beef chili, heavy on the meat. It could have used some condiments: with some grated cheese, chopped raw onion and hot sauce, it would have been great. (Condiments weren't part of the cook-off however.) McMullans also deserves kudos for being the only establishment to have participated in all four years of the uptown chili cook-off.

Honorable Mention: Dana Shortt
Shortt made a braised beef brisket chili. The beef was cooked perfectly - moist and falling apart - but the chili was bland and did not have much depth of flavor. Worse, it was sweet (this is a particular bugaboo of mine). The main ingredient was meat, and other than sauce and a few beans there was nothing in it. To sum up: it was well-executed but not to my taste. It came with a peculiar deep-fried avocado ball.

Sad Regrets: The Red House
The Red House ran out of chili just before I arrived. The Red House is my favorite uptown eatery and my go-to spot on a Friday night, so I was very disappointed in myself for tardiness. Next year (shaking my fist), I vow to not be late...

Olympic Update

CBC coverage of the Olympics has been fantastic. I don't have TV reception in my home so have been watching events via CBC shows live events, webcasts of the entire event (including qualifying), highlights of individual performances, and editorials. Commentators are former competitors and do an excellent job.

I have a quibble though: coverage of women's curling assumes that the audience is knowledgeable. I have curled, but I'm baffled. Most galling is when they make comments about the ignorance of the Russian crowd cheering for the wrong things - but don't explain why the audience is wrong, or what's right.

My favorite sports are ones where people fly through the air while twisting: figure skating, snowboarding, freestyle skiing. Here's a competitor bonking the doll in slopestyle skiing:

I think slopestyle defies the laws of physics. Here's a truck driver grab in slopestyle. I assume the name is because the arms are spread as if grabbing a large steering wheel.

(Watch the slopestyle finals here:

Much as I enjoy figure skating, I nearly died laughing while watching this spoof. Oh, so simple and so classic. Figure Farting

A recent poll found that for most Canadians, the only gold that really matters is men's hockey. (That doesn't mean that the entire country isn't riveted on every other event, and that women's hockey isn't huge.) I'm the ultimate fair weather fan: I watch hockey every four years, when the Canadian men and women are in the finals, and never any other time. Still, I love those Olympic finals. Here's what I wrote four years ago when the Canadian men beat the US: Losing is not an option.

Monday, February 03, 2014

Waterloo needs a west-side expressway

Rush hour traffic in uptown Waterloo is a mess. Some of the busiest intersections - William/Caroline, Erb/Caroline - are going to get even worse when the LRT goes through them.

What we need to relieve the congestion in uptown is an expressway, or at least a rapid road, on the west side of town. Currently the Conestoga Parkway (shown in yellow below) is only two-thirds of a ring road.
In recent years much of our growth has been in the north-west, an area not serviced by the Conestoga Parkway. People in those subdivisions clog up Erb and University getting to the parkway, and a lot of them drive across the uptown getting there.

As more and more condos are built in the uptown, too much of that commuter traffic is heading east, putting pressure on Park, William, Caroline, and other streets that feed onto the Conestoga Parkway. If more of that traffic could be funnelled west, much pressure would be relieved.

A few years ago it was widely believed that Ira Needles Boulevard would be the west side rapid road, but then it was lined with dozens of big box stores and it can barely support local traffic. Our options are more limited now, but there has to be a solution.

Child abuse

Imagine if you will a 7 year old girl who said that the male adult in her home had molested her; the police were called and said that while they found substance to the allegation, they thought the girl was too fragile to be a witness in a prosecution, and so declined to prosecute. Now imagine that 22 years later she repeated her allegations. Take away the celebrity parents. How would you want our society to react?

I hope that you would want them to support the girl. But nobody in the press seems to want to support Dylan Previn (or whatever her name is now). Article after article, including by respectable writers in the Globe and Mail, are trashing her. As Kate Taylor wrote today, "the man has a right to be tried in a court of law not the court of Twitter."

This issue is important because of the people who are watching it play out: the abuse victims who are afraid to speak up, the abusers who are getting away with it, the potential abusers who are reckoning whether they can get away with it, the witnesses who are trying to decide if they should risk speaking up. This isn't about celebrities; it's about children who are being heinously harmed.