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Alumni in China 2: Gavin Hamilton, rock star
By:  Edward McCarthy   (2009/02/21)

(Pictures courtesy of Tony Stephen, Mary Waddell and, of course, Gavin Hamilton)

I feel that I should begin this article with an apology for the abrupt end of my first China article. You will understand, of course, when I tell you the circumstances under which it was written. Our accommodation, to "enrich athletes' spare time in our hotel," has prepared film screenings on channel 0 every night from 8-12. The opening volley is four straight nights of Indiana Jones, so at the time I was quite distracted by Raiders of the Lost Ark (with Chinese subtitles). The Temple of Doom interfered with bedtime last night, and I look forward to being able to watch the entirety of The Last Crusade in the absence of a race tomorrow. But I digress.

That article finished with a passing note about food, a five-star hotel, and military guard. Frankly, outside of skiing, these three things are our universe right now. First, the guard. Here's a statistic for you: for every athlete at our venue, there are twenty-two police and military. Not one; not ten; twenty-two. These include, but are not limited to: the two guards who stand at attention for four-hour shifts checking accreditation at the one entrance to our hotel which is not chained and padlocked shut; the groups of three guards liberally scattered around the perimeter and the roads, generally every 200 metres or so, who simply stand at attention and watch; larger patrols who apparently circle the hotel and the woods aimlessly; and the force manning the security checkpoint on the way in. These guards, though very personable when not on duty (we've also seen them tobogganing, in full uniform, behind their barracks), don't allow photos. In this they contrast with the police, who are at least as ubiquitous, but whom I can no longer take seriously since they insist on swarming us for pictures with the foreigners, and specifically, with Gavin. More on this later.

An army patrol marching up to our hotel entrance

A group of three guards in the standard formation

All this security, and the fact that the temperature has yet to hit balmy highs like -10, mean that we spend most of our time inside. This brings me to the hotel. It is nice. Five-star nice. The rooms are spacious, light-filled, and mahogany-floored; my roommate Terrell, however, has made a special request that I mention how hard the beds are (ROCK-hard - this is true). This makes the cabin fever somewhat more bearable. Still, without much to do but write long-winded, sarcastic articles and "study," food is a major diversion. It helps that breakfast is 6-11, lunch is 11-2, dinner is 5-midnight, and the given times seem to have a few hours flex. The pre-race information promised a cafeteria with "both Western and Chinese food options." We were all prepared for the worst, and were unexpectedly confronted with the best. There is a buffet which usually has about 10 hot dishes. Steamed rice and fried rice are constant, but the rest rotates. We've had noodle dishes, scalded vegetables, shrimp, stewed mutton, braised beef, Kung Pao chicken, mashed potatoes with minced pork, lemon pepper fish (I suspect something codlike), and roast lamb, among others. This is coupled with a consistent cold meat (there is a wonderful, kielbassa-like local sausage), fresh fruit, and salad bar, along with bread, tea, coffee, and dessert. The only complaint is a certain inconsistency in labeling, and the lingering fear that the authorities have been trying to rid themselves of the same french fries for the last few days. It started when they repackaged them as part of another dish, but my fears spiked when I found them tagged "Lyonnaise potatoes." There is also a tendency to mix up potatoes and tomatoes - I have had "Baked tomato" with breakfast a few times now - and to change names on the fly, as when lunchtime's "salmon" became dinnertime's "sea bass."

Now, back to the topic at hand: Gavin Hamilton is a rock star. I think we all knew this, but never has it been more evident than in China. Bearing in mind that the police will accost us to pose for pictures with them, you can imagine how everyone else is. The sign language for camera, fortunately, is universal. We have all had our pictures taken with volunteers, train conductors, airport staff, hotel staff, drivers, and anyone else who happened to be walking by. Gavin, however, attracts a disproportionate amount of this attention. His blue eyes, blond hair, baby face, and big smile have made him an instant Chinese celebrity. Women (including policewomen) will stop in their tracks for pictures with him. While lining up for the opening ceremonies, as a matter of fact, several members of a group of young, female performers stopped from their frantic run to wherever they needed to be to take pictures with Gavin. He has also been interviewed for Chinese television. Why go home?

Gavin and an admiring cop

Girls lined up for a picture with Gavin at opening ceremonies

That said, Gavin has also been a rock star on the trails. We had our first race yesterday, an individual start skate, 10k for the men and 5k for the women. Among other things, it made me eat my words about the never-changing conditions - it snowed about 5cm overnight before the race. Cold, dry, crystalline snow. Slow snow. The wax didn't need to change, fortunately - Dave Battison, Christine Bisson, and Tony Stephen have been doing an amazing job for us - but what had been fast became, well, not as fast. It was apparent pretty quickly that no one was going to have that effortless feeling that sometimes accompanies great racing.

Ed and Simon Beaudet in the 10k

A flying Gavin and a chasing Ed in the 10k

Despite the slowness, I managed a pretty good race, particularly for me for a skate individual start. Dave had recommended relaxing from the start and not blowing up on the first climb. Good advice, and I gradually pulled in the starter ahead of me through the first loop. Reaching the bottom of the course, however, and passing him, the realization suddenly hit me that from there, right through the stadium, up to the top of the course, was a constant gradual climb, with absolutely no rest. Did I mention it was slow, as well? Dave described watching every single racer in the field enter the stadium, look shocked at how hard it was, immediately try to push hard through it, work hard at it for about five strides, and finally give up in dejection and plod through the rest of the stadium. I am convinced I have never entered a finishing straight so slowly. One person the conditions didn't seem to affect, however, was Gavin. I say I had a good race. Gavin, starting a minute behind me, passed me with about 3.5k to go. He was gracious enough to say he'd poured it on to catch me and died for a while after, and I did keep near him for about 2.5k, but Gavin was really flying. While I managed the second Canadian spot, 57th overall, Gavin finished in a blistering 19th spot in what turned out to be quite a tough field. On the women's side, Alana also pulled through in the tough conditions as the top Canadian, 42nd overall. The team as a whole was pretty pleased with our performances, and hope to improve on them throughout the week.

Alana in the 5k

Gavin and Ed dog-tired at the finish (Ewan, our adopted Aussie, in the foreground)

Today was the sprints. I opted out, but the rest of the team raced. To no one's great surprise, the start was postponed by an hour when the mercury was still below -21 at 8:00. The course had gotten faster since the skate race, but no easier. Not unlike the long course, the sprint course, which seemed flat at first, turned out to be a lot of gradual uphill. Terrell, the team sprint specialist, commented that it was pretty hard to push all the way through "the last big hill, which was the stadium." Despite that, he finished with an impressive 23rd place finish after a fourth place in his heat. Gavin, the second Canadian, finished in a tie for 49th. On the women's side, Alana snuck into the heats with a 30th place finish, which ended up as her final rank after a hard-fought battle in the quarters. The story of the day was a Japanese skier, the fastest qualifier, who finished in second place in a Russian sandwich. As a side note, today's sprint was the first ever major FIS race where the women's final had the marquee position as the last race to be run.

Gavin in the sprint qualifier

Terrell in the quarterfinal

Alana in the quarterfinal

Tomorrow, we have a day to rest, train, and watch the new Indiana Jones, and then it's on to the duathlon - 15k for men, 7.5k for women. With all 11 of us racing, we'll have the coaches working hard.
Interesting Reading. . .
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