Tuesday, February 24, 1998
Japanese deserve credit
One day it was left on a bus. Another day in an arena. Another day in a bar. And so on.
Every time, it was returned.
One of the TV people accidentally left her purse in a restaurant. It was returned to the media centre within an hour -- her passport, her credit cards and her money all still inside.
On the cash register in the media cafeteria was a sheet of paper labelled "Found." Attached to it on Day 2 were an American dollar and a 5-yen piece (roughly equivalent to a nickel).
Americans found this amusing. "Hey, that dollar looks familiar," one joked. "I used to have one like that. Maybe it's mine."
One of the cashiers was asked why she didn't just take the coin for herself. "I couldn't do that," she said. "I would have it on my conscience."
By the end of the Olympics, there were too many coins to attach to the piece of paper. So they were piled underneath it. Some of them were 1-yen pieces.
Even the most jaded media hacks were impressed by the way the hosts reacted to their presence. The unfailing kindness and politeness actually spread, and by the time the proceedings were ready to draw to a close, even the columnists were being nice to each other.
Not even the members of that most-despised species of sub-humanity, the Olympic security guard, could raise a snarl. Instead of doing what Olympic security guards everywhere do and inconveniencing as many people as possible, the Japanese guards invariably kept the bureaucracy to a minimum. They were always polite and they always smiled and bowed.
At the beginning of the Olympics, the cafeteria staff spoke no English. But because the intransigent journalists refused to learn simple phrases like "Konnichiwa," it was the Japanese who learned to say "Good afternoon," when bleary-eyed hacks staggered into the cafeteria looking for breakfast.
There were many stories similar to the one related by Brendan Shanahan. He asked for directions to the train station and was not only taken there, but given help in buying the appropriate ticket.
A similar thing happened to a group of journalists trying to find a specific restaurant. A photocopied map was produced and shown to a passerby. Fingers were pointed. The woman had been going the other way but she turned around and walked with the group to the restaurant.
And it's not as if the visitors were unfailingly polite and deserved this treatment. In fact, Japanese customs were routinely ignored. It is, for instance, the height of bad manners to blow one's nose at a restaurant table in Japan. But there were those who did it anyway.
The Japanese do not eat standing up. In fact, at one time in Japanese culture, even to pour wine while standing was an offence that called for immediate suicide on the part of the offender. But there was never any shortage of people wandering around town stuffing french fries or Big Macs into their mouths.
Japanese do not jaywalk. Many of them were therefore left standing at the curb waiting for the light to change while the visitors marched off across the road.
The North Americans were not totally innocent in such matters, but the runaway winners in the Olympic-boorishness contest were the people who became known as the Eurotrash.
In the days leading up to the Olympics, fancy equipment worth thousands of dollars was routinely left laying around in the media workroom. But once the Eurotrash showed up, it was found to be prudent to pay more attention to security.
The Eurotrash were generally from eastern Europe, people who in many cases spent a lot of their lives under Soviet domination. But, as one observer remarked, "For people who spent so much of their lives lining up for food, they're remarkably unclear on the concept."
People would wait patiently in line for a bus. Then, as soon as it arrived, the Eurotrash would barge to the door, often swinging camera equipment like maces, pushing aside all those who were in line.
They probably didn't have much money, and certainly hadn't wasted what they had on soap or deodorant. This too was a factor in their ability to get to the front of the line.
But the Japanese continued to operate as if all was perfect in the world. The degree of competence was astonishing. Buses were frequent and almost always on time. Check-in was remarkably easy and the horror of every Olympics, check-out day, came and went without so much as a lineup.
The people who ran this Olympics did so with a degree of gentility, civility and politeness that absolutely astonished Olympic veterans.
The next Winter Olympics are in Salt Lake City. There, we'll probably get back to normal.