04 March, 2010

One last look at the Olympics, and then back to our regularly-scheduled Canadian navel-gazing

I love listening to the CBC. During my current daily routine of 6 hours' lab work, followed by evening attempts at paper writing, it's been the one cheerful, edifying constant. The Olympics were a blast to "watch" through eyes and ears of CBC radio journalists and their half-hourly news and sports standings updates. I kind-of miss that. But, thankfully, in true CBC fashion, the post-Olympic navel-gazing analysis has run most of the week, and we'll be back to the regularly-scheduled "What does it mean to be Canadian" navel-gazing next week, I'm sure.

The radio has provided me with an unending source of entertainment, information and opinions (not to mention a few new french words and some musicians to look up) while I grind soil samples, or sort data and clean lab glassware. It's also made me more aware of what's going on in the world, current event-wise than I would otherwise be, since I do not subscribe to a newspaper and I don't chase down internet news on a regular daily basis. The half-hourly news updates, and the news shows like The Current have kept me in the loop, and I've had more than my fair share of politics to digest this week, in addition to the Olympics run-down, thanks to the new Throne Speech and budget announcement. I still don't understand why we need to create a parliamentary focus group for the purpose of changing a line in our national anthem. Is it really worth that much effort, or do the MPs already miss spending their time pointlessly milling about?

Anyway, the title of this blog post suggests that I need to do more than navel-gaze.

A couple of articles reached my radar on Monday. Or, more specifically, a couple of negative American Olympic summary articles. Gilbert LeBreton from the Fort-Worth Star-Telegram (that's next to Dallas, TX) wrote a couple of scathing reviews of the Olympics as hosted by Vancouver. You can read them here: In these Olympics, Canadians only paid attention to Canada and Offending Canada wasn't intentional.

Suffice it to say, I got angry. You can't expect an entire nation of people to let you get away with comparing them to Hitler and the 1936 Nazis. So I didn't. I e-mailed Mr. LeBreton, who describes himself as a descendant of Acadian heritage, and, I don't know, therefore able to make fun of Canadians because he's part-possible-former-Canadian himself? I told him a whole bunch of things, but mostly that it was unreasonable (and unwise) to compare Canadians to Nazis given the WWII history we all experienced, that Canada was involved in the Allied WWII efforts for far longer (and at much greater sacrifice) than the Americans, and that comments like his were likely to open wide rifts in sentiments between Canadians and Americans simply because of the seriousness of those Nazi accusations. I also told him... well, why don't I just re-post some of the e-mail?

Dear Mr. LeBreton,

Maybe it's just me, but I didn't think the "Rah-Rah Canada" theme of the Vancouver Olympics fell into the category of outright jingoism. If I'm not mistaken, we gathered together as a nation to host the world and celebrate all that makes Canada great, not to cultivate a patriotic fervour leading to overt aggression and xenophobia or creating some sort of combative foreign policy. In fact, I'd contest that we were trying to do the exact opposite by welcoming the world and being boisterous (if loud and proud) hosts. Sure, we wanted to prove that Canada could actually hold its own on the world stage, but by no means was our poorly named "Own the Podium" programme designed to declare Canadian athletic supremacy, and I don't think that's what we did at these Games. Unlike Berlin in 1936 (ouch, seriously, insulting and callous, what were you thinking?), there was no "the Aryan race is the best" simulacrum or any goose-stepping. From the vantage point of a tv viewer outside of Vancouver, I saw a lot of airtime dedicated to people like Lindsay Vonn, Thomas Ulsrud, Sven Kramer, Apollo Ohno, the Norwegian domination of cross-country events, and the Korean and Chinese women's battle for glory in speed skating; and that was on the Canadian television networks.

Obviously I'm biased, I'm one of the masses against whom the article and its poor apology has been written; but you don't come in to someone's house, enjoy the hospitality, tell everyone you've had a great time and then take a dump on the lawn when you leave (and then try to make up for it by telling us you gave a busker your pocket change). I also think Canadians (just like every other nation) deserve to pay attention to their athletes, first and foremost, but you can't say we didn't notice the others out there. In just about every event I watched, there was discussion of the most talented competitors (as I've mentioned above), no matter what nation they were from, and the medal hauls from "star" athletes of all nations. I also highly doubt that American media coverage of the Games expended vast amounts of energy and airtime to discussing other nations' athletes over their own.

As for Nodar Kumaritashvili, a number of international luge competitors are raising funds for the "dead luger's" family, and I saw a fair amount of respect for him through the mention at both opening and closing ceremonies' broadcasts as well as newscasts that included footage from his funeral in Georgia during the Games. For a large portion of the Olympic Games, in fact, Kumaritashvili was a footnote on many of the broadcasts I watched; the sombre starting point, and a touchstone for so much that did happen. I'd actually like to suggest that his death was a more poignant and commented-on incident (as a reminder of the honour we had to pay to those who've fallen) than the bombing victims' deaths and suffering during the Atlanta Olympics; or at least media coverage of the two events would have us draw that conclusion. Don't forget that the VanOC and IOC cannot fully comment on his death for reasons of liability. One would think, in a litigious nation like the USA, that people would be used to that sort of caution.


As a tourist, I know that I've attended events, and visited countries and seen things through a very specific set of lenses. Perhaps that was part of your problem with the Vancouver Games. I know footage of the Torino games included lots of green, white and red from their flag, and the Utah Games had vast constellations of red, white and blue stars. For a nation constantly referred to as "the United States' little brother", I can see how you were suprised that we took on such a solidly red and white hue during the past two weeks, and I can see how that could be jarring enough that you missed out on the other highlights of the Games. If you'd taken off those blinders, you'd have noticed a number of large Olympic flags in the crowd, even during the semifinal hockey games, and you'd have noticed that Canada was happy to have the whole world there with us.


I'm still sticking to my house guest analogy: if you're going to come on in and enjoy the food, the party, the company and all else, maybe you shouldn't complain that the hosts kept their family portraits on the walls. Like all the other Olympic Games you've attended, you are there by the grace and good wishes of the host nation. They all intend for you to have a good time and take full advantage of their hospitality. I'm sorry the 2010 version of Canadian hospitality rubbed you the wrong way, but can we really help it if we're proud of our home and the people we put forth in the competitions? Please don't forget that we're going to be neighbours for many years to come, no matter how many maple leaves got waved in your face or how many chants of "USA USA" were loudly echoing through the various sporting venues (did you attend any curling?). It would be good if we could still remain friends as nations. Your article and apology rebuttal are not helping maintain that relationship.

Congratulations to your athletes on a very well-deserved record-setting medal count.
A very disappointed Canadian."

And then he replied to me:

"Dear Alison:
Thank you for taking the time to respond to my column. It was a great email, and I promise you I'll take to heart everything you wrote.
I'd also like to personally apologize to you for using the 1936 Berlin
Olympics analogy in trying to make my point. It was a poor choice and I regret it.
There were many exciting and memorable moments in the Vancouver Olympics, and I hope these are the ones that will linger when the cheers of those three weeks finally fade.
Best wishes to you."

I was a little surprised to get an actual e-mail from him, to be honest. And, the cynic in me thinks that last paragraph (not best wishes, the one before it) suggests that nothing's changed about his view, and that he'll still look back on the Vancouver Olympics with a bitter taste in his mouth. ... though maybe now it's also because of the backlash from his articles (the comments on the website are phenomenal, albeit more angry and combative than helpful). {Aside: apparently he truly is apologetic, he was interviewed by a Calgary Herald writer on Tuesday}

I don't know exactly where I stand on this issue. I think his use of the Berlin 1936 comparison is incredibly baseless in the sense that no one should be compared to Nazis unless the comparison is also taking into account all the atrocities and the crazed xenophobia they instigated. BUT I can also kind-of see his point (if it hadn't also been true of the Sydney and Utah games). Vancouver was a sea of red and white. ... it was a polite, well-behaved sea, but a sea nonetheless, and the maple leaf became far more prevalent than any other symbol around. Though, from the stories posted elsewhere, there were a vast number of foreign visitors who also picked up wearing the maple leaf (or at least the mittens), and I highly doubt there was active boo-ing of people wearing other nationalities' insignia. It was a party; a primarily red and white party with lots of maple leaves, but there were smatterings of yellow and blue from the swedes, lots of red, white and blue stars from the USA, and a whole host of other colours dotting the wave of canadiana. Is it fair to accuse the Canadians of outnumbering the foreign guests on their home turf? I don't think so. It would be like accusing a family of outnumbering their guests at Christmas Dinner.

I think the big thing we can take away from this is that this particular writer expected us to maintain our separate-identity-less America-clone appearance while he was visiting, instead of embracing our own national identity with such an upwelling of pride. I'm glad we disappointed him.

You can read some great reviews of the Vancouver 2010 Olympics by American Journalists here: Canada is a Winter Games wonderland and Leaving behind a thank-you note from the NBC Brian Williams (not the CTV Brian Williams, I got confused, and laughed!).

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