27 February, 2010

A golden Olympics for Canada?

On the eve of the last day of the Vancouver 2010 Olympics, it seems to me that Canada has both met and failed at its own expectations. The Canadian Olympic Own the Podium (OTP) approach to achieving best-ever Olympic results did not live up to the initial demands of, what, 34 medals? Are you kidding? For a nation of a scant ~30 million (given the landmass), our current 25 is a phenomenal achievement. It is something we should be proud of, and never ashamed of. The Canadian public has been witness to some formidable performances, inspiring in their bravery (e.g. Joannie Rochette), their determination (e.g. the Kevin Martin curling rink's gold or bust approach), and their outright enthusiasm (e.g. Jon Montgomery's surprise Skeleton gold and fantastic post-win victory walk through Whistler). But we were also witness to anger (Pierre Leuders' frustration at the crashes and heavy snow on the bobsled track, though he was happy with a 5th place finish), more frustration (from Denny Morrison and some of his fellow speed skaters who were locked out of the medals until tonight), and the heart-wrenching sadness displayed by those who felt like they'd let their country down (e.g. Mellisa Hollingsworth's tearful apology to the entire nation); or worse, the let-down the Canadian Olympic Committee gave to our most phenomenal chance at breaking the disability barrier, and encouraging even more young people to take up sport (Brian McKeever, the legally blind cross-country skier will not be in the 50 km men's mass start Sunday morning).

Now, I don't know if our country should be apologist about this sort of stuff, or wave our maple leaf flag proudly. It's a mixed bag. It has been a mixed bag since Vancouver first decided to put in a bid for the games. There are still contentious land claim issues in the areas surrounding Vancouver, and it took a lot of appeasement to get the native communities on board with the Sea-to-Sky highway construction, and the various other development projects required for the games to run without a hitch in the Whistler area. There are a lot of housing issues in Vancouver, and a lot of denial about the marginalised populations found within the city. The red tent city that was put up for the games only roughly masked the issue, while the rest of us all pretend there weren't one-way bus tickets purchased for a number of people (or that the rest of Canada hasn't purchased one-way to Vancouver bus tickets for a number of people either). The green-washing campaign is a mild success (as it was, I'm sure, in Lillehammer (who builds Olympic venues next to bird sanctuaries, really?)), but there will likely be odd ramifications as a result of it. Sure the Skytrain was expanded, but a 2.5 hour drive from Vancouver to Whistler (not to mention traffic jams) is hardly eco-friendly.

The successes, though? An overall peaceful games; no violence has broken out (knock on wood, one day to go). Ample back-up and contingency plans made sure things followed through no matter what the problem (be it a broken ice resurfacing machine, or some glitchy hydraulics, or very unfortunate weather patterns). And, if luck has it, the Canadians in the crowd might actually come away with a better sense of themselves, despite the foreign press sniping from Great Britain and Russia, both of whom, surprisingly enough, are set to host upcoming games. Our Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, apparently had to make a special request in Parliament that Canadians be more blatantly patriotic during these games, waving the flag a little more, donning some red and white and getting out there to cheer on our nation (so says Tom Brokaw at least).

As someone who was in pre-games Vancouver (November), it was clear that big things were afoot, but just how big, it was hard to tell. I would never have anticipated the spectacle and the splendour that's been on display, and it is heartening to think that such a great product could have been made in Canada. Hopefully we'll be able to take this and roll with it. The debt will also be rolling with us (to the tune of what, $2 billion?), so why not the guts and glory as well? The teamwork, whether from the construction crews, or the nation-wide RCMP force that was cobbled together for ceremonial and enforcement detail (gotta love the red serge) has been simply phenomenal. If nothing else, I hope there's some glue left over from the games, and that it might just make us all stick together better, and choose to work on our problems and issues in more collaborative ways than playing the divisive blame game. The evidence is there: our athletes got together in ways we would never have expected, coming out to cheer each other on, and reporting on each other's results while in the midst of their own games; if they can support each other, why can't our whole country join together and do the same? And why can't it be about more than just sport? We strive for excellence in sport, and we can hold on to our athletes (or shame them when they leave, like the now Australian ski Olympian), but our brain drain problem is still prevalent.

Canada has a long way to go. Let's hope these Olympics are a sign of better things to come in the future, be they proper solutions to housing and homelessness, or respectful resolution of land claim and Native Peoples' rights (and access to education and clean drinking water etc.), or to solving national issues of promoting and supporting our home-grown talents as athletes, as actors, as artists and as all workers. Perhaps, hopefully, we'll start to recognise that "made in Canada" can be world-class and that striving to own the podium should be expanded to something broader and more far-reaching (and maybe more inclusive). The overall standings suggest that Canada has one of the highest levels of top ten performances of any nation at the Olympics. THAT in and of itself is and should always be a source of pride for our athletes. THAT should be what we strive towards as a nation, whether in the arena of sports performance, or in, say, medical practice. We may be an enormous slice of land with a scattering of people, outnumbered by the U.S. state of California, but we should always remember that we can band together and work towards common goals, and that it isn't bad to root for the home team.

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