Newsmakers of the week

One President needs a footstool, another President writes a note, and will someone please rescue Amanda Lindhout?

Michael PhelpsPhelps gets smoked

At the Santa Clara Grand Prix in California last Sunday, Vancouver’s Brent Hayden finished the men’s 100-freestyle race in 48.44 seconds, a meet record, beating eight-time Olympic gold medallist Michael Phelps by a full half-second. “I was really excited,” Hayden told the Canadian Press. “Michael is such a great competitor and every time I get up and race him, it’s such an honour.” Phelps—newly mustachioed, and recently back after a three-month suspension by USA Swimming for getting caught smoking marijuana on film—won two of his four races at the meet. “I’m ready to go home and sleep in my own bed,” he said.

Here’s your visa, Mr. Rae. You’re not welcome.

Last week, Liberal foreign affairs critic Bob Rae was turned away at a Sri Lankan airport, allegedly for being a Tamil Tigers supporter and a “security risk”—and an Ontario resident may be to blame. According to the Toronto Star, Irangani de Silva, a Sri Lankan expat who lives in London, Ont., wrote an opinion piece in the June 8 issue of The Island, a major Sri Lankan newspaper, in which she counselled Foreign Secretary Palitha Kohona to revoke the visa that had been issued to Rae for a three-day visit. She also denounced Rae for having suggested in the Commons recently that Canada ought to look into human rights violations committed by Sri Lankan officials over the course of the bloody 25-year civil war between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority. “We are sure that [Rae] will return with a damning report on the government of Sri Lanka and push for war crimes investigations, publish media reports that there is discrimination, etc.,” de Silva wrote. Granting a visa to Rae, she said, was an “act of foolishness.” In Sri Lanka’s state-owned Daily News, the anti-Rae vitriol continued after his departure. One columnist argued that Rae is pandering to the large faction of Tamil expats he represents in Canada “who are not just vocal but openly violent in their support for the cause of terrorism in Sri Lanka.” In his statement, Rae called the charges made against him “absurd” and “a lie, pure and simple.”

Teacher’s pet

Ten-year-old Kennedy Corpus of Green Bay, Wis., was granted special permission to miss her last day of school to attend a town hall-style meeting about health care led by President Barack Obama himself. When her father, John Corpus, stood to ask a question, he told the President that his daughter was missing school to be there. “Do you need a note?” Obama asked, then proceeded to jot one down on a piece of paper: “To Kennedy’s teacher: Please excuse Kennedy’s absence. She’s with me. Barack Obama.” He stepped off the stage and delivered it to Kennedy himself. “I thought he was joking until he started walking down,” the girl said later, showing off the note to reporters. “It was like the best thing ever.”

Shania TwainShe’s still the one

Last week, Canadian country diva Shania Twain posted an exuberant update on her official fan site, after a tumultuous year following the public breakup of her marriage to Robert “Mutt” Lange. She apologized to her fans for her prolonged absence, “but as most of you know,” she wrote, “I have been sidetracked slightly over this past year.” She added that mourning her marriage—which broke up amid reports of her husband’s affair with her best friend, Marie-Anne Thiébaud—has given her fodder for a great many songs, which are forthcoming. For the time being, she wrote, “I’m enjoying my child, friends and family like I haven’t in years . . . I’ve jumped out of an airplane at 10,000 feet, I’m riding Spanish and Arabian horses, travelling to exotic places. I’ve been deep sea diving for the first time! I pull the odd all-nighter, read more books, listen to [my son] Eja’s favourite music with him, LOUD . . . and basically I’m enjoying life.”

George Bush Sr. Also jumping out of airplanes . . .

Former U.S. president George Bush Sr. celebrated his 85th birthday last week by throwing himself out of a plane travelling at 10,000 feet over Kennebunkport, Maine. The president, who skydove tandem with Sgt. Michael Elliott of the U.S. Army Golden Knights parachute team, called it “a great day in the air.” He told reporters he did the jump to show other seniors that “just because you’re an old guy, you don’t have to sit around drooling in the corner.” Bush also received a personal telegram for his birthday from Russian PM Vladimir Putin, who reminisced about their time together and told Bush that he deserves to rank among the world’s “most authoritative” leaders.

Vladimir PutinAnd another thing Putin thinks

One of Russia’s greatest artists, 79-year-old Ilya Glazunov, has agreed to “fix” one of his paintings after Vladimir Putin stopped by his home for a visit, examined the large canvas, which depicts a medieval knight, and proclaimed: “The sword is too short. It’s only good enough for cutting sausage.” Glazunov readily agreed. Putin reportedly considers himself something of an art expert ever since one of his own paintings sold at an auction in January for $1.37 million. Although, at the time, not everybody was impressed with his work. One artist told Britain’s Telegraph, “A leader who demands that the world play by our rules could hardly have painted such a picture. It looks as if it was painted by a sentimental woman. It is too sweet.” The artist asked to remain anonymous.

Nicolas SarkozySuch great heights

Journalists took great delight in the opportunity to photograph French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is five foot five, propped up on a foot stool at a celebration commemorating D-Day in Normandy recently, to appear as tall as the other world leaders in attendance (including U.S. President Barack Obama, six foot one; Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, six foot two; and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, five foot eleven). An employee of the French TV station Canal Plus told London’s Daily Mail: “Mr. Sarkozy knew he was appearing on the same podium as far taller world leaders and would have looked ridiculous using it at their height. You’d barely have been able to see his hair bobbing up and down. Combined with his stacked heels, the platform allowed Mr. Sarkozy to look as though he was an impressive height, although there were sniggers from those of us who could see what was really going on.”

The Smith familyThey’re off the Christmas card list

The Smith family of Missouri recently discovered that their Christmas card photo, posted online for family and friends, was being used for a purpose they had not intended—to sell groceries in eastern Europe. Danielle and Jeff Smith, who live in a suburb of St. Louis, were notified by a friend travelling through Prague that the photo, featuring the couple and their two young children, had been lifted off their Internet blog and turned into a giant poster advertising a delivery service for imported Italian foods. The business owner, Mario Bertuccio, said he believed it was a computer-generated image. “We’ll be happy to write an email with our apology,” he offered. Meanwhile, in the Siberian city of Omsk, cardboard cut-outs of Brad Pitt are being used by Russian police as a desperate attempt to curb speeding, a growing problem in the city. The theory is that life-sized cut-outs of Pitt dressed as a traffic cop, placed at the most dangerous intersections, will entice star-struck motorists to ease their foot off the gas and take a look. According to a report in the Russian paper Argumenty i Fakty, Dmitry Ziryanov, the official who devised the plan, says it is working. Pitt, he said, “is kind of a like a colleague for us.”

Amanda LindhoutDesperate times

A woman who identified herself as Amanda Lindhout, the freelance journalist from Sylvan Lake, Alta., who was kidnapped in Somalia last August, called CTV News last week and made an emotional plea to be rescued. “I’ve been held hostage by gunmen in Somalia for nearly 10 months,” the woman said. “I’m being kept in a dark, windowless room in chains, without any clean drinking water and little or no food. I’ve been very sick for months, without any medicine.” International aid experts worry that the longer Lindhout and her Australian colleague Nigel Brennan are kept, the more danger they face. “They are really getting impatient,” Ambroise Pierre, the Africa expert with Reporters Without Borders in Paris, told Canwest News Service. “The kidnappers wanted to negotiate sooner than this.” He added that though these kidnappings aren’t uncommon in East Africa, they are usually resolved within six weeks. In the CTV recording, the woman identified as Lindhout continued: “The Canadian government must have some duty to help its citizens in such a crisis and my fellow citizens can assist me by putting pressure on my government . . . My life is worth more than any money spent.” Reporters Without Borders says that unconfirmed rumours about the state of the journalists have been circulating among their sources in Somalia. Some say that the two journalists tried to escape in February, but were recaptured, and that Lindhout may be pregnant.

School’s out forever

Chao Mu-he, a graduate student at Nanhua University in southern Taiwan, received his master’s degree in philosophy last weekend at the tender age of 96. Chao, better known to his fellow students as “Grandpa Chao,” began his graduate studies after the hospital where he volunteered dismissed him for being too old. “I was bored after I left the hospital,” he told the Associated Press. “I don’t play mah-jong or have other hobbies.” Chao focused his studies on the works of the fourth century B.C. Taoist master Chuangtze, to whom one 25-year-old classmate compared Chao himself. “He is always at ease, not fighting anyone,” said Liang Yu-Chen, adding that Grandpa Chao had great respect for his much younger teachers and bowed deeply before addressing them. The hardest part of his studies, Chao said, was memorizing the material. “I can’t remember things as well as my fellow students,” he said. His solution was to pull all-nighters before an exam. “That way, the material was still fresh in my mind.”