Vancouver 2010 Olympic Games and Canadian Pride

I know the Olympics in Vancouver have been over for a long time. I’m gonna write about them anyway because it’s MY blog… and people are still talking about it regardless. And the Paralympics are still to come! Plus, I’ve now gone through a grand Olympic struggle to get this post up… working on it while one-and-a-half-handed (MOTL), and then finding I’d lost everything I’d just written because of a log-in mix-up… I just hope you’ll find it was worth waiting for.

I’ll start with this: even though I barely saw the Vancouver 2010 Olympics, I was sorry to see them end.

The first time I really paid attention to the Olympics was in 1988, when I was 9 years old, during the Winter Games in Calgary. I was a little figure skater, just learning my loop, salchow, and flip jumps, and I became totally enamoured with Elizabeth Manley and Brian Orser. My first attempt at a scrapbook arose from this. I was also in Homeschooling, so I got to see and learn about sports I’d never witnessed, like bobsled and luge and giant slalom. I remember Kerrin Lee-Gartner won two medals for skiing, which was a big deal. (This was so long ago that curling and hockey were not even part of the Olympics yet.)

To be honest, I haven’t ever paid as much attention to the Olympics since then. I kept up with figure skating (doing and watching) throughout the Kurt Browning and Elvis Stojko days, but that was pretty much the extent of it.

This year, as we were gearing up for the 2010 Games in Vancouver, I was mostly unenthused. There was so much talk in the media about how much money it was costing for Vancouver, how cities go into absurd amounts of debt in order to host, how the politics of the IOC and the Games in general are ruining the spirit that was meant to be.

I have friends who were firmly cynical about Canada hosting. This was not helped when right off the bat, CTV decided to air footage of the awful luge accident. Then there was the snow melting (in Canada, what?!). Then there was the IOC insisting that Uvex, the company that provided some of Lindsey Vonn’s gear, take its congratulations to her off its website when she won, because “no competitor […] may allow his person, name, picture or sports performances to be used for advertising purposes during the Olympic Games”. Come on now, that’s just petty.

And… let’s face it, I just wouldn’t be me if I didn’t complain about the fact that the beautiful song composed as the Olympic theme for 2010 revolves around a grammatical error. Urghhh. I tried to not care, but I can’t tell you how much it made me cringe to hear, in the midst of such an inspirational song, the words “I believe in the power of you and I” over and over. (The power of I???? Who ever heard of such a thing???? Really, you had to write it that way?… Okay, I’m done ranting for now, I promise.)

When the Games began, I didn’t watch them, mostly because I am not in the habit of watching live TV these last few months – who has time? But once they got going, I meant to. I was intrigued by people’s comments on Facebook, especially regarding the opening ceremonies: people were in awe. Non-Canadians were saying things like, “You must be so proud to be Canadian right now!” And on CBC radio, people were calling in and saying how much they loved the honouring of the native peoples during the proceedings, how the atmosphere in Vancouver was thrilling, electric, joyful, how people on the streets were demonstrating Canadian hospitality at its best.

I finally got around to checking on the last Friday of the games, hoping to catch a few exciting moments – and of course to check up on the figure skating. I had heard about poor, brave Joannie Rochette winning the bronze in spite of her mother’s death a few days earlier. I read up on Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir winning gold and ending the decades-long ice-dancing domination by Soviets and Russians. And I was suddenly kind of heartbroken to realize there were no more figure skating events left – I had assumed the men’s singles would be last, as used to be traditional. Apparently a Gala of Champions did occur, but I couldn’t find a listing for it.

I finally got down to business on Sunday, the last day. We had recently cancelled our cable, so I tuned in on my computer to watch live streaming Olympics. I have to say, if you’re going to miss all of the Olympics except one day, the last day is a pretty good one to catch. The CTV folks were all excited and emotional, and they summed it all up for me wonderfully, airing all the favourite moments – their own and those of the Canadian audience. They included categories like “best hug”, “best dance”, “best reaction”, “best moment from opening ceremonies” (the moments they showed of the ceremonies only confirmed that I must see them in full, because, um, WOW). The moments that kept coming back, talked about by everybody, included:

  • Alexandre Bilodeau, the freestyle skier who won Canada’s first gold medal on home soil, victory-hugging his brother Frédéric, who has cerebral palsy and has always been an inspiration to him;
  • The board-hopping embrace between Charles Hamelin (upon winning gold in short-track speed-skating) and his girlfriend Marianne St.-Gelais (who had won silver in the same event for women, on her birthday)
  • The Canadian women’s bobsled team freaking out, realizing they had won gold and silver;
  • Jon Montgomery‘s walk of victory after winning gold in skeleton, during which he impressively chugged beer straight from the pitcher a fan handed him;
  • The group tackle-hug of the women’s hockey team when they won;
  • Dozens of triumphant, spontaneous dances and euphoric hugs from athletes and fans alike, not just Canadians but everyone, from everywhere.

This is when it started to crystallize for me – what the Olympic Games are supposed to be about.

That afternoon, at the baby shower I was attending, we guests were getting periodic updates on the men’s hockey game, the last athletic event of the Games. I had been picturing the hockey guys in their dressing room before the game, going, “Well, we must win. There is no other option.” Not on home turf, not at the Olympics, not when one more gold medal would take us from more golds than any other host country to more golds than any country – ever.

Of course, they came through. They were kind enough to take the game into overtime, not only for better nail-biting entertainment value, but also so we could get home from the baby shower and catch the end. And of course, who else could score the golden goal but Sid the Kid? Parfait. I’m not even that into hockey, but one must admit it was a family-movie type ending to the Games.

I watched the closing ceremonies live as well, remembering how in ’88, it was way past my bedtime so I couldn’t watch the end where they extinguished the torch. (My sister and I had our own symbolic torch-extinguishing ceremony with a flashlight.)

In 2010, I enjoyed them on my computer. The wry tone was set right at the beginning by the clown-mime who “pulled” the last arm of the torch out of the floor – a joke to encourage us to laugh at the hydraulics malfunction that apparently disrupted the opening ceremonies. That was just the start of the tongue-in-cheek shenanigans.

Some people felt the humour was just too tacky, but I took it as it was meant: that we can laugh at ourselves and the stereotypes that haunt us. Although I squirmed at the environmental implications of gigantic inflatable moose and beavers, I thought it was a clever way to be a “good sport” no matter what the outcome of the games: if Team Canada had not done well, it would have said, “That’s okay, we can still get silly and have a big ol’ party.” Since we did do well, it said, “We may be awesome in myriad ways, but we don’t mind also being a self-deprecating doofus in the name of fun.” If the opening ceremonies were our chance to show our respectful, cultural, gracious side, the closing ceremonies showed that we have a whimsical side too.

It was also cool to see so many Canadian stars up there – it was great to see La Bottine Souriante get some well-deserved international exposure; individual comic bits by Bill Shatner, Catherine O’Hara, and Michael J. Fox felt like an intimate, chatty farewell; Neil Young and Michael Bublé showed themselves worthy of their status as Canadian icons.

One of my favourite parts of the event was the speech by the lead organizer of the Games, John Furlong. Though his French was painful to listen to, the rest of his speech was thorough, thoughtful, and sincere, full of thanks for the different groups that made these Olympics possible. And he hit the nail on the head with this:

…compare for a moment the Canada that was with the Canada that now is.

I believe we Canadians tonight are stronger, more united, more in love with our country, and more connected with each other than ever before. These Olympic Games have lifted us up.

If the Canada that came together on opening night was a little mysterious to some, it no longer is. Now you know us, eh!

If we were once the few we are surely now the many.

That quiet, humble national pride we were sometimes reluctant to acknowledge seemed to take to the streets as the most beautiful kind of patriotism broke out all across our country.

So many new and dazzling applications for the Maple Leaf – so many reasons to smile and be joyful.

Canadians, you joined each other and our colourful international visitors in common celebration – radiant, jubilant, spontaneous, peaceful.

For us, you were the wind beneath our wings.

That’s what I’d seen, and that’s what had touched me: the pervasive elation, a delight in being Canadian that seemed to suddenly come into its own. I’d seen what he meant by “in love with our country”, and it was powerful… like Canadians had just been waiting for this chance – permission, almost –  to glory in what we have here.

I am never comfortable with patriotism that manifests itself in jingoistic self-righteousness or brandished weapons, but to be proud of your home and recognize that you love it is valuable and profound. Canadian patriotism, like Canadian identity, is rather too complicated to put your finger on, as John Ralston Saul has pointed out – but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. I think most of us know and appreciate what we have, how lucky we are, and that we are collectively unique in wonderful ways.

This is definitely what I felt as I watched the live blog comments pop up on the CTV website beside the video feed: every few seconds, Canadians (and some non-Canadians) were writing in, mostly to say things like, “This is awesome”, “Amazing job, Vancouver”, “I’m so proud to be Canadian”, and especially, “I LOVE CANADA!” It was an awesome feeling of connectedness, to watch the images we were all watching, and feel that I was together with all these other viewers, many of whom wrote that they were moved to tears as the festivities drew to a close.

By the time the 2010 torch was extinguished, I understood. The point of the Olympic Games is to celebrate the best parts of our humanness: joy, love, community… and exhilarating physical activity, whether it be competing or just cheering like crazy. When we genuinely celebrate these things, they encompass us and blur the lines between countries, reminding us what really matters, how much we have in common, and how much there is to admire and respect in each other.

As I see it, especially when you’re having an international extravaganza like the Winter Games, there can be no better goal.

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