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Thursday, August 28, 2008

Blame (Air) Canada

Here I am back home, feeling not only exhausted by my extra flying time (see story below) but also kind of like I never properly said goodbye to Hong Kong and the Olympics. Thanks to the misleading advice of an evil little man, Jenn Ward and I ended up in a mad dash to the airport the night before we were supposed to leave. I was yanked out of my peaceful nest at the university guesthouse; I didn’t even have time to check out, and you should see what the contents of my luggage looked like. I grabbed clothes, books and way too much paper from the competition (that I’m sure I will never need), and zipped it all willy-nilly into the bag. I don’t believe in ironing, but most of my stuff is too wrinkly even for me to wear without shame. I had these great plans to send off a final pre-departure blog, then make my way back to the venue one last time. I would sit in the empty press tribune and close my second Olympic experience with a quiet moment looking out at the stadium where I spent two incredible weeks. Instead, I spent my final hours in Hong Kong wandering the halls of the airport, waiting for the 5 am boarding call for my ‘long way round’ flight home.

A Week and a World Away

I find it hard to believe it’s just seven days since we all screamed ourselves hoarse for Eric and Hickstead as they took a final victory lap in the Olympic stadium. I know some of you are curious to hear what I think of the show jumping medals, so here you go. I have nothing but pride and admiration for the team, and for Eric in particular. I still find Ian somewhat media-phobic (though I am grateful to him for giving me a one-on-one while we rode the bus to a reception at the Canadian Consulate), but I have developed a new opinion about Eric’s occasional reluctance to give interviews. I can’t blame him for being reporter-shy, given the feeding frenzy I witnessed last week over his drug-shadowed past. I sent my gold medal story into the newspaper chain, and the editors not only traded in my “Storming to Victory” title (thanks Jenn) for a drug reference headline, they also added an opening paragraph which gave all the gory details that I had made a point of leaving out, since they had nothing to do with his winning the medal.
I agree with Eric when he says “the past is the past.” His problem was not motivated by cheating, it didn’t involve anyone’s welfare – human or equine – but his own, and darn it, it’s over. I know bad news sells stories, but Eric and Hickstead have earned their place in the history books. I for one don’t want to hear anything but joy for his shining gold medal, the first EVER individual gold for an Olympic equestrian.

Doping for Dummies

On the other hand, there are some nasty drug tales from Hong Kong that I think do need to be talked about. It just wouldn’t be the Olympics without a little doping scandal, would it? The show jumping bust this time hinges on the same drug, which is named for the chili pepper base that gives it hyper-sensitizing properties: Capsaicin. All was explained in the incredibly packed-with-bodies press conference the FEI held to break the bad news on the day of the individual jumping final. Of the 15 horses tested, 4 were positive – which leads to the question of what that number would have been if they had tested all 70+ horses. Capsaicin has a very short half-life in the horse’s bloodstream, and before now was believed to escape detection. But come on people! You knew you were going to be tested by the most stringent lab in the horse world, the Hong Kong Jockey Club’s lab. It can’t be proven that the topical cream was put on the horses’ legs to make them not want to hit fences, but that’s where I’d put my money. Those crazy whale-killing Norwegians will now have to give up their historic bronze medal to another non-EU nation that prefers nibbling Toblerone over blubber: Switzerland.

The uncontested Booby Prize winner for bad handling of the doping scandal is Irish party animal Denis Lynch, who held his own press conference a couple of hours after the FEI was done. The despondent Denis didn’t talk much, but his vet sure did; he even brought a show-and-tell item: the guilty cream itself. The topper was when the vet went so far as to point out the label of the container, which said “contains Capsaicin. Will not test.” Hey Denis! How about those Sea Monkeys? You believe what it says on their label too?

Sad Courtney

How ironic that the Cat Stevens song on which Courtney King-Dye based her freestyle is filled with messages of pain and sadness. I also find it ironic that the USEF’s official statement on Mythilus’ positive drug test supports the suggestion by the rider and the team vet Rick Mitchell that they suspect the horse was exposed to the banned topical (yes, more cream) anti-inflammatory called Felbinac while he was being treated at the Hong Kong Jockey Club clinic. Ok, so let me get this straight: the Hong Kong Jockey Club drug testing lab found a banned substance that the horse was exposed to while in the care of the Hong Kong Jockey Club vet clinic? I’m in no position to question Courtney’s innocence – that is the FEI’s job – but I think I might have come up with a different scapegoat than a branch of the same institution that was responsible for detecting the drug.

News Flash: Air Canada Reconfirms Status As Worst Airline, Ever

Why on earth would I exchange an 11 hour nonstop flight for a 21 hour backtracking marathon? Because when last Friday’s typhoon grounded 400 flights in and out of Hong Kong, Canada’s proud national airline decided the best way to catch up would be to cancel their Vancouver flight two days later. If I had been booked on any other day, including typhoon day itself, I would have been taken care of, if a bit delayed. I am not alone of course; a whole bunch of other Canadians were expecting to sleep in their own beds on Sunday night too – most of whom faced extended stays in Hong Kong.
So, you wanna know how those maestros of customer service at AC (Air Crap) handled things? First of all, they didn’t bother notifying the 250 or so passengers that there was no plane waiting for them at the expected hour – or ever. I found out only because after successfully checking myself in online 24 hours before, and then attempting to do the same for Jenn Ward – so that I could enjoy a few more hours with my barfy-pants buddy – I wasn’t able to check her in. Hong Kong’s AC office was closed for the weekend (of course, why would they expect to get phone calls the day after a typhoon?) so I called Canada. “The reason you can’t check in is because the flight has just been cancelled,” said the loving, sympathetic agent. She then cooed soothingly: “I can’t rebook you until September 4th. I had a fit. She put me on perma-hold. I gave up and called again. Perma-hold again. This time the phone system killed my hopes and disconnected me. One more call. I was finally told we could fly home one day later via Shanghai. Oh Goodie.

This third, helpful agent told me the best way to make sure I got that re-booking was to go to the airport and change my ticket in person. I went immediately. When I arrived a little man in a suit sidled up to the counter where I was beginning my transaction, and asked if I wanted to go home on the nonstop YVR flight leaving that night, in 5 hours. He said there was a ‘very good possibility’ to make that flight. I put Jenn’s and my names on the standby list, and spent the next three hours doing a Hong Kong version of Trains, Planes and Automobiles. All to get back to the airport in time, be told to wait half an hour, and then – with some prodding of the check-in agents, who were doing their best to ignore us (and who are not AC employees but contractors that handle a long list of airlines) – find out that in fact every passenger had turned up and not one standby would get on. Another fit, but this time there were two of us, and we weren’t moving from that check in counter. After much rude and aggressive behaviour that I am not proud of, the gate agents caved and offered us seats on the 6 am flight to Toronto.

We spent a lovely night in the airport, kept company by a snoring sea of bodies. Is AC really the worst airline? I guess not, because they haven’t actually killed me; though they have made a commendable effort to do so with their food. As I flew back and forth over Canada, I saw an ad during the in-flight entertainment that boasted how proud AC is to fly Canada’s athletes to the Olympics. I guess they just meant one way.

I do still have a few more things to share, secrets such as which dressage rider chews gum in all her tests, who is the most eloquent speaker in Equine Canada, who is the victim of the Canadian Consulate’s undiplomatic moment, and details of Mariette’s 1:30 am tête-à-tête that caused such a scandal – and a talking-to from FEI 2nd Veep Chris Hodson. Tune in one more time for a final wrap up installment of the Hog Blog.

How did they get themselves from the dressage to the airport
without waking up?

Hello Kitty's Hong Kong cousin, Bye Bye Pony

Last chance to catch Olympic spirit through spending


Anonymous said...

Re Courtney; thought you might be interested in Lendon Gray's comments on the Chronicle discussion board:

"It always amazes me that people will post on these boards “facts” with they are completely unaware of the facts. Let me just tell you all that Mythilus had a serious heart condition on arrival in Hong Kong and had to be handled by vets other than the US vet. He had ultrasounds and 9 nose tubings. They were using medications that were not brought from the US, since the US vet never expected to have to treat his problem.

Let me also say that no one has ever seen Mythilus to be unsound since he was brought to the US.

However he did test positive and the FEI has the right to suspend Courtney even though she has no knowledge of how the drug came into contact with Myth. We will know more after the hearing. For those of you who have admired Courtney and believed in her, I hope you will continue to do so. She deserves it.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with you about Eric. He has done our country proud and it is tacky for the press to dwell on his past.
Great caption on the picture of the people sleeping, thanks for the laugh.