Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Tracksuited Protectors From Evil

You know, this whole Olympic torch relay thing has gotten a bit overblown. The way that people are just in awe of this burning stick amazes me. It's as if they think (and they probably do) that the Olympic games are dependent upon this torch making it's way across the globe, it's burning embers never to be extinguished. Yeah, it's not like that at all. The torch plays no part in whether the Olympic Games are played or not. It's a symbol that serves as a public service announcement.

Seriously. That's what the torch is. Just a very symbolic piece of PR. Picture some guy, running through your neighborhood, yelling, "Hey! A bunch of us are having a foot race over here! And some of us are going to throw spears! Others are going to hurl discs! And they're going to go really far! But a whole lot of us will be running in the foot races! Wanna come?! Follow me!" That's the purpose of the torch.

Now really, if you think about it, the torch is reallly just the Olympic's equivalent to the Oscar Mayer Weinermobile. Both of them make their way across the country, causing people from all lands to notice and become aware of their presence. (And in the Oscar Mayer example, possibly to have some delicious hot dogs.) They're practically the same thing. Only that Weinermobile isn't on fire (on a good day).

Even the Olympic officials are a bit overzealous about the torch. And because they think it's so freaking special, the Chinese government has hired a few handfuls of it's 1.3 billion Chinese citizens to protect the torch.

Officially, the torch guards are known as the Olympic Flame Guardians. There is one torch. There are 70 OFGs and there have been 70 OFGs since August 2007. (I'm assuming they've been training this entire time. But I could be wrong.) Of those 70, 30 of them are dispatched to the torch relays that are held outside of China and the other 40 are responsible to play Follow That Torch when it is in China.

The crux of their job is that they must make sure that the original flame that is from Greece, never ever goes out. That means these guys have to watch the torch all the time. All day. All night. In the hotels. On the planes. (...In a house or on a mouse. It must keep burning, Sam I am....) In order to help them do this, they have been given special training in foreign customs (clearly their training on "foreign customs" did not include fashion tips from Stacy or Clinton.) and they have also learned some basic language skills in English, German and French. Of course, no word on how "basic" the "skills" (if they were skillful at all) actually were.

Now, the government of China had advertised for the torch protector people, but they only advertised within China's armed police forces. So that was requirement number one, you must be a member of the People's Armed Police (PAP? They might need to rethink that a bit.). The other requirements for an individual to be qualified to make sure that a burning stick stays lit for months on end are that you must be "tall, handsome, in exceptional physical condition similar to that of professional athletes." (No word on what "tall" qualifies as in China. Also no word on what "professional athlete" qualifies as in China either.) Interesting criteria. So, good looking, PAP midget wrestlers would be out.

Once they had their tall, handsome and buff PAP torch guards, they decided that they were going to need some sort of uniform. Something that accentuates their tallness, their handsomeness and their buffness, yes? Sure. So let's put them in blue track suits. That should do it, right? Wait. What? Yes, they decided that a bunch of Chinese guys that looked like really uptight joggers would be the most intimidating and/or professional look for these guys to have whilst protecting the Olympic Flame O' Propaganda. (And the fanny packs? Nice touch. Yeah, that butches up the image quite a bit!) Behold! Sweatsuited Chinese Torch Guards hard at work:

Impressed? Frightened? Little of both? Neither? Yeah, it's weird all right. Apparently, those who were chosen were the "cream of the crop" from the PAP. And in China, "cream of the crop" means "highly-trained killers from crack military special forces units", with some being selected from the Sword of Southern China and the feared Flying Dragons counter-terror units. With a background like that, it's not surprising that "plays well with others" was not one of the requirements, as officials from cities where the torch has been have not been pleased with the blue tracksuited Chinese PAPs. From the pictures, they do seem to be a little overbearing.

Lord Coe, one of the organizers from London, called the OFGs "thugs". Jack Cafferty of CNN called the OFGs "goons" And although the Chinese were not happy with either characterization of the OFGs, the Chinese are only demanding an apology from Cafferty. I guess maybe they figured that the chances of them getting a Brit to apologize were slim to none.

There always seems to be at least 10 guards around the torch at all times. Now, I don't know what exactly qualifies one to be a "goon" or a "thug", but the pictures below do help clear that up a little bit. As you can see, while the breakdancing man is subdued by local officials (breakdancing = not very Olympic-y), the blue tracksuited OFG keeps his gaze steadily fixed do the other (seemingly mandatory) ten OFGs in the background.

And basically, the only retort that Chinese officials had for any complaints was that the torch guards have received "specialist training" in crowd control and vehicle handling. (OK, I understand the crowd control part. I don't understand HOW they're going to do it, considering they appear to be armed with not much more than a baby blue windbreaker and a not-so fashionable fanny pack, but I understand how it's part of the job. However, I still do not understand where "vehicle handling" comes into play in regard to a flaming stick that is being carried by people who are running.) Below are some OFGs exercising that knowledge of crowd control. From the picture, one could get the impression that the "crowd" that the OFGs are supposed to "control" is the OFGs themselves, as I count at least 9 OFGs, 1 torch carrier, 1 cop and 1 individual subdued by zero OFGs (no partridge, no pear tree).

So, what have we learned? Not much, really. We've learned that (apparently) the proper ratio of Official Torch Guards to Official Torch is approximately ten to one. We've also learned that the world will make fun of you if you dress your many, many OFGs in light blue track suits. We'll make even more fun of you if you include a fanny pack with all of the powdery-blue goodness.

We've learned that the Chinese OFGs are characterized by some as "goons" and "thugs". We have also learned that the Chinese don't much care for being called "goons" or "thugs" and seem to think that being in charge of the Flaming Olympic Advertising Medium (FOAM), aka The Torch, allows them the latitude to ask for an apology. Never mind their Communist government and their human rights violations all over the place. Name calling? Not acceptable in China!

And finally, we have learned that most people think that the torch is much more important than it actually is. We've learned it's nothing more than a flaming advertisement for a global foot race that keeps reoccurring every four years at various places around the globe which are announced intermittently as a group of people we have no idea who they are decide. What we haven't learned is why we keep doing this. And what we'd like to know is when is it going to be over?

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