Friday, August 16, 2013

Cross-Country Skiing, Modernist Art and Russian Espionage

I spent a day recently on the cross-country ski trails at Falls Creek – “The All Seasons Alpine Resort”. While this tagline is not technically incorrect, Falls Creek (in Victoria, Australia) is not an all seasons resort in the same sense as Whistler (in BC, Canada) where you can ski, on actual snow, all year round.

 The contrast between summers in Whistler (left) and Falls Creek (right) is not subtle.

Being quite new to cross-country skiing, I was gingerly taking a corner at a speed narrowly exceeding my skill level (that is to say, not very fast) and found myself so deep in the groove that I was unable to make the turn and ploughed straight in to two ladies coming up the slope.
 Despite what Ricky Calloway & The Dap-Kings might have you believe, sometimes it’s important to get out of the groove!

After nonchalantly shaking the snow out of my thermal underwear and reassuring the ladies there was no serious damage, I quickly struck up a conversation, which provided the first indication that these were not your typical Australian female cross-country skiers.

“I trust that you lovely ladies are having a good day out on the snow?”

“As we say in Russia, any day is good if you have more fun than One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.”

This is, of course, a reference to the 1962 Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn novel about life in a Soviet forced labour camp and, although a good read, it is not what I was expecting to hear on the cross-country ski trails at Falls Creek.

The ladies went on to explain that they were curators for a Modernist Russian Art Museum and had come to the sleepy ski town of Mount Beauty in Victoria to investigate a wall mural that had piqued the curiosity of a wealthy Siberian mining magnate with a taste for exotic art.

I feigned interest and managed to convince them that I was intrigued and wanted to know more – but only as an excuse to meet up with them later on that evening. In reality I probably would have preferred 10 years in the Gulag where Denisovich was imprisoned rather than spend an evening discussing modernist art murals.

After some mulled wine and cheese, the conversation began to flow and I got a sense that there was more to these ladies than they were letting on. For starters, what were they even doing on the ski field, and why was the art mural they had been sent to investigate so unimpressive?

Something just didn’t seem to add up.

The evening descended rapidly in to a drunken haze as I tried, unsuccessfully, to seduce the two Russian ladies. They were seemingly unaffected by the alcohol, and proceeded to question me incessantly all night long.

It wasn’t until the morning, after some breakfast and an Espresso Martini that I began to piece it all together. These ladies were not here for the art. They had asked a barrage of questions last night and seemed keenly interested in Australian sporting culture and the issue of same-sex marriage that has been in our news recently. At one point I recall hearing how they enjoyed Australian politics and in particular the subtle misogyny of our opposition leader.

While out sightseeing in the town that day, one of the Russian ladies asked me to take a photo of her.

Cheeky Russian lady.

As she removed the phone from her pocket, I caught a glimpse of what looked like a lanyard with an Olympic symbol, some Russian text and a blurry ID photo.

They insisted that I take them out to McDonald’s where once again they questioned me about issues seemingly unrelated to modernist art and one of them posed for another photograph outside the restaurant despite refusing to eat anything due to concerns that it might ruin her figure.

It was then that it dawned on me. McDonald’s has been under pressure recently due to their sponsorship of the upcoming 2014 Winter Olympic games in Sochi, Russia. Controversial new anti-gay laws have been passed in Russia that “prohibit propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations among minors" which basically means that any public discussion of gay rights and relationships in the presence of children has been outlawed. While McDonald’s has not pulled out of its sponsorship agreement for the games, they have condemned the actions of the Russian government and stated that “There’s no room for discrimination under the Golden Arches” – although anybody championing the cause of nutritious food might disagree with them.

It appeared these ladies had been sent to the Falls Creek all seasons ski resort on behalf of the Russian Winter Olympic Committee to gather intelligence about gay-rights issues in the Australian ski community.

There have been many calls for countries (including Australia, England and the U.S.) to boycott the upcoming Russian Winter Olympics in Sochi on account of these discriminatory laws implemented by President Vladimir Putin. English actor Stephen Fry recently published an open letter to the British Prime Minister, the IOC and the British Olympic Association expressing his fears about the reforms and calling for an outright ban on staging the Olympics in Russia.

It is my guess that Russia is taking this threatened boycott so seriously that it has sent spies to gather intelligence in the hope of avoiding a boycott from the Australian team – a Winter Olympic powerhouse ever since 2002 when Steven Bradbury won our first ever Gold medal in this famous incident:

 Skip to 1:30 for the final lap climax!

Despite still not being able to pass same-sex marriage laws, when it comes to LGBT rights, Australia is a reasonably progressive nation. LGBT in this context should not to be confused with the Louis Garneau Bicycle Team whose stance on same-sex marriage is, at this time, still unknown.
Same-sex marriage, anyone?

This article provides an interesting analysis of how Australia stacks up against the rest of the world on these issues. Compared with countries like New Zealand where same-sex marriage is legal to Saudia Arabia where the death penalty is enforced for homosexual acts, Australia and Russia obviously sit somewhere in between.

That evening I was tossing up whether or not to confront the two Russian spies masquerading as Modernist Art Buyers and they must have sensed my suspicion because they left, in a hurry after once again getting me so drunk that I passed out in front of the unimpressive wall mural.

It will be interesting to see what comes of this intriguing political and sporting controversy, although I imagine it will be something along these lines:

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