Hm. So for another four years we in Canada will be blissfully devoid of saccharine super-patriotic television commercials, and as Alan Cross noted on his Twitter feed this morning, with any luck we won’t have to hear that awful “I Believe” song ever again. But now that the hype is already dying down in my home city of Toronto, I feel it would be prudent for me to comment on the phenomenon that is the Olympic Games.
I’d like to preface this article by saying I wrote last week not one, but two Olympic-related State of Affairs posts, both of which were somehow eaten by my devious laptop, which was itself probably acting in my best interests, because they weren’t very good. But I felt you deserved an explanation as to why I hardly updated last week. Apologies; we’ll call them practice runs for this article and never speak of it again.
Those of you who know me personally, or at least read this blog with some frequency, will have noticed I don’t write about, talk about or actively engage in sports, nor am I known for watching much outside the occasional obligatory Toronto Maple Leafs hockey game. There are a lot of reasons for my disinterest in sports, but most of them boil down to a genuine confusion about the attraction of sporting events. I mean, to me it’s just entertainment like anything else, and like romantic comedies and Seinfeld, it’s just not the kind of entertainment I’m into. I’m not knocking people who are: maybe if I was a player of some denomination I’d be more interested (the way I’m more interested in music because I’m a musician), it just doesn’t scan for me.
That said, I’ve always had an interest in the Olympics: partly because it’s one of the few times I get to see sporting events that aren’t often televised, and partly because the sports that are televised are often played better on the international stage – hockey being the most obvious choice. Like I said, I occasionally watch NHL hockey, and it’s been my experience that teams I’m usually bored to tears watching play way harder when there’s a gold medal on the line. But I’ll get back to that.
The Olympics are a fascinating spectacle. All these fabulously talented athletes who train their entire lives to be the very best at very, very specific tasks come together for two weeks and compete against the cream of the international crop in Skate Very Fast In A Circle or Go Like Stink Down A Mountain or Ballet On Ice or whatever. Everybody’s patriotic nationalism is ramped up to a fever pitch, a great deal of money is spent on prepping a nation to host the Games, and all across the world, graphic designers and journalists alike get to paint the digital landscape with new and innovative ways of saying “isn’t our country just great”.
I’ve never really been able to get on board with the idea of patriotism. Sure, I think Canada is a great place to live, which is why I live here, but there are other cool places in the world. My family background is German and South Irish; while I’ve never been to Deutschland my father went over with my Opa a couple of years ago, and judging by his experiences it looks like pretty awesome place. I have, however, been to South Ireland, and I can say with absolute sincerity that if I were to live somewhere that wasn’t Canada, my first choice would be Dun Laoghaire, just outside of Dublin, on the shores of the Irish Sea. To me a nation is made up of people, not ideas, and I have met cool people everywhere I’ve gone – hell, I very nearly moved to Texas a few years ago, and let me tell you what, their reputation as a redneck state is ill-gotten. It’s a fantastic, diverse culture that deserves to be experienced.
So you understand what I mean when I say I don’t have much invested in how Canada fares at the Games. It’s not that I “hate” my country or anything like it – I just don’t think a ratio of Talented Athletes versus Untalented Spectators is any kind of indicator as to how “great” a country is.
That’s why I was a bit puzzled about all the hype and controversy surrounding Canada’s Own The Podium program. From what I’ve gleaned, OTP is basically designed to provide the kind of framework necessary for Canada’s athletes to perform at their very best throughout this year’s Games and beyond, including financing, coaching, management, and everything else that goes into the infrastructure of a successful sporting outfit. Okay, I figure that’s cool – I’m involved in similar programs when it comes to music, like the Songwriter’s Association of Canada, which has provided me with extremely valuable resources throughout my burgeoning musical career. Anytime a country gets behind their world ambassadors (and I ascribe that as much to the artistic community as I do to athletes or, you know, ambassadors) I think it’s a pretty good idea.
A lot of people took umbrage with the whole idea, though. Over the last two weeks I’ve heard a lot of rhetoric about how OTP is too “American” an idea to fit in with our supposed national ideals. One British writer in particular had a lot to say on the subject, and to be frank he was pretty offensive. Okay, I’ll grant you that “Owning” the podium is a pretty American sentiment – it speaks to the kind of supreme confidence-bordering-on-arrogance that’s pretty typical of the American stereotype – but at the end of the day, I really don’t see the problem. Everybody comes to the Olympics – indeed, competitions of any stripe – to win. Showing up just to participate is counterproductive. And while we were probably a bit more overzealous than usual in our support of our athletes this year, I found it kind of refreshing that we walked away from that polite, sorry-for-everything, extremely Canadian stereotype for a little while and actually said “hey, we’re good at this stuff – why not say so?” To say nothing of the fact that it worked. I hate to get all uppity, but Canada now holds the world record for most gold medals won at a single Winter Olympics, so despite Simon Barnes’ big talk about how “[Own The Podium] deserved to fail because it was conceived in bad sportsmanship and simple envy”, I guess we did something right. If it matters, on behalf of Canadians everywhere I’m very sorry we performed so well. Except I’m not.
That’s part of the reason I was so pissed off when the IOC asked for an apology after our Gold-winning women’s hockey team were castigated for celebrating on the ice after their win. That was one of the few events I watched during this years’ Games, and while I don’t pretend to be anything resembling a sports expert, I can tell you that was one hell of a good hockey game. Both teams performed extremely well and were more than deserving of their Olympic standing. One of my friends mentioned at the time it was too bad goal machine Marie Philip Poulin (who I will henceforth refer to as “Speedy McBarely-Legal) wasn’t of age to have a celebratory drink, to which I replied that if she could find a bar in all of Vancouver (hell, in all of Canada) that would refuse her a shot of Canadian Club or a bottle of Molson’s – if not buy it for her outright – I’d eat my hat. Well, the IOC didn’t share my liberal viewpoint on the subject, and a great deal was made of the “incident”.
What incident? It would have been one thing if our team had been hosted by another nation – you don’t walk into another man’s house and light up cigars – but it was our ice. To say nothing of the fact that everyone else had already gone home; it was, for all intents and purposes, an after-party that happened to spill out of the change room. Frankly I think it was richly deserved, and I genuinely didn’t understand why so many people had such a huge issue with it.
That’s the part of the Olympics I don’t like, and it speaks to my bafflement regarding nationalism. I’m all for supporting one’s nation – like I said, I’m deeply indebted to the programs in place to support Canadian music – but when it goes from positive reinforcement of our guys and girls to negative lashing-out at other nations, I start to have problems. On an individual level I didn’t appreciate some of the anti-American sentiment I heard from Canadian fans, because that (far more than Own The Podium) doesn’t reflect the attitude I’ve come to expect from my country. Thankfully there wasn’t a lot of that – I was extremely pleased to hear the largely Canadian crowd at the women’s gold game chanting “USA, USA” when the Americans went up to get their silver medals.
I can’t help but feel, however, that it’s the negative side of nationalism that led to a lot of the haranguing directed at Canada. It’s a very short step between “go us” and “down with them”, and I think people got the wrong idea about what we were trying to do at these Games. If you want to be pissed that we carted out some of the worst musical talent we have to offer for the closing ceremonies (Nickelback? Avril “Whatever Happened To Her” Lavigne? Simple Plan?) I’ll be first in line to apologize (though you did get Uncle Neil and William “The Shat” Shatner – you’re welcome), but otherwise there’s no shame in a little healthy pride now and again, so quit complaining.
I said before that I didn’t watch a lot of the Games, partly because I wasn’t interested and partly because I don’t have cable television, but what I did watch led to some pretty spectacular highlights. After getting uncomfortably bored watching the women’s hockey team trouncing the poor Slovakians, some friends and I changed the channel to women’s freestyle skiing, where I got to watch the one sport I know even a modicum about. I never skied professionally, obviously, but I used to go downhill skiing a lot – my dad was on his high school skiing team, so he tried (largely unsuccessfully) to teach me the ropes. No slight to him, I’m just not athletically inclined (the vast deforestation of Snow Valley in Barrie during my time there speaks to that assertion), but I really enjoyed skiing and it gave me a better gauge of how unbelievably impressive these athletes are in their chosen sport. Silver medalist Jennifer Heil was a joy to watch, and even though she was really hoping for gold, I still think she performed extremely well. I was particularly interested in newcomer Chloe Dufour-Lapointe, an 18 year-old from Montreal, who I actually expected to place on the podium. She wound up snagging fourth, but I’m convinced the 2014 Olympics will see her come home with a medal.
I’ve already spoken about the women’s gold-medal hockey game, but I’d like to add that I typically enjoy women’s hockey more than I enjoy men’s. The simple reason for this is because most of the male players are already used to performing (yeah, I said performing) in front of large audiences and playing with high stakes, because they’re largely NHL players. Every player on both the American and Canadian men’s teams quite literally do this for a living. The women, on the other hand, don’t have the same kind of framework, and they’re under considerable pressure to perform at the Olympics (because they don’t have a Stanley Cup to fight over). The game both teams played was far, far better than anything I typically see at the NHL level (despite my obvious knowledge gaps, many NHL fans have agreed with me on this point) so it was well-worth my time to check it out.
But the game this entire nation was waiting for was, of course, the men’s gold medal hockey game between (predictably) the United States and Canada. Our men’s team took a lot of shit for losing to the Americans early in the Games, so I was unsurprised when they came raging out of the gate against every team they played in the interim, and I fully expected a solid game out of both teams for the gold-medal spot. I also didn’t intend to watch it.
Like I said, I don’t really get into sports, and honestly the only reason I’d watched the events I had up until that point was a case of right-place, right-time: when you’re hanging out with a bunch of people who want to watch the Olympics, you don’t very well turn on the X Box, you know? Much as I can say positive things retrospectively, I could have taken or left any of the coverage I did see.
Those of you on my Facebook list are aware that I made some incendiary comments after the first Canada/US men’s game, to the effect of “who cares if Canada lost?” The resulting shit-storm of controversy that plastered itself all over my page – including some pretty intense rivalry between my Canadian and American family members – suggested to me that I had spoken out of turn somehow. Clearly, people take this stuff very seriously. So in an effort to get back into everybody’s good graces I agreed that if the gold medal game came down to Canada and the States I’d go watch it.
Apparently everybody in this entire country watched that game, so I’m not going to go into details, but suffice to say it was arguably the best game of hockey to which I have ever been privy. I found myself leaping out of my chair at fairly regular intervals every time somebody almost scored, and I’ll even admit to sloshing my drink (Canadian whiskey, of course) when the home team scored. I nearly got kicked out of my buddy’s place for cheering just as loud when America scored that last goal to tie up the game – not because I “wanted” them to win, but because that final goal forced the game into overtime – also known as Sports Movie Drama. I was sufficiently lubricated at that point to allow myself to “get into the game” as the commentators say, and a Sudden Death overtime was just what the doctor ordered as far as Olympic drama is concerned. I’ll admit I would have been kind of disappointed if they’d just fiddled around with the puck for the last few seconds to draw out a 2-1 win – this way we all got to sit on the edge of our seats throughout most of the overtime period, and it made Sidney Crosby’s game-winning goal that much more effective.
I’m not going to admit to jumping out of my chair exuberantly, nor will I admit to screaming out the back door of my friend’s home to be answered by cheers all across the city. I will not admit to standing up for the National Anthem, and that little tear running down my cheek that I don’t admit to? That was just a bit of long-lost patriotism that got in my eye.
I further refuse to admit to walking gaily down the street towards Yonge and Eglinton, shouting enthusiastically to passersby and people hanging out of their apartments. You can’t make me cop to high-fiving every fan that came screaming down the streets, drunk on national pride and what I can only imagine was a staggering amount of Molson beer. The only thing I will admit to is lingering at Yonge and Eg, watching as throngs of fans decked out in red and white waving flags and brandishing booze filled the streets, effectively stopping traffic (especially when those driving didn’t seem to mind at all). I’ll admit that, but only because I was fascinated by the sociological implications of national pride driven by a simple game and how it united the people of this city (and presumably the whole country) for one night. Yes. It was a sociological observation. Nothing more.
But what came of my observations? Well, it sure was interesting to be high-fiving a whole bunch of guys who on any other day would be shoving me out of the way and calling me a faggot (you know the type I’m talking about). It was pretty amazing to see everybody set aside their day-to-day differences and, you know, be a country for once. It’s just too bad things aren’t like that every day – wouldn’t it be cool to have that kind of solidarity more than once every four years, or in cases where something terrible happens (think New York post-9/11)? Maybe it’s something we should aspire to.
Because at the end of the day I think that’s what all this Olympic hoopla is supposed to be about. My American aunt said of the Olympic Games that “at least it’s better than war” and I have to agree with her. Giving healthy competition a positive outlet like the Games is definitely better than having a big old international drag-out grudge match, and in that respect I guess I have to get behind it.
That said, I’m very glad I will not have to listen to “I Believe” for at least another four years. Here’s hoping, anyway.