An expatriate’s remembrance of podia distantly owned

Tuesday, 2 March 2010 — 10:46am | Canadiana, Hockey

Time will tell what I remember of the Vancouver Winter Olympics decades from now: not much in the way of specifics, I expect, but a lingering oddness of having missed the biggest national celebration in my country’s recent history on account of being overseas. On face it was an Olympics like any other: foreign, inconveniently scheduled, and mediated by coverage that was indifferent at best and infamously vicious at worst.

I watched that hockey game, of course, and could only have been happier with the Crosby goal if my hometown messiah Jarome Iginla got in on the play—oh wait, he did—but the BBC cut away before the medals were awarded, and I missed almost the entirety of the rest of the games. (CTV had online video feeds but insisted that I install Silverlight—a bizarre choice of technological affiliation on their part, almost as baffling as if they had decided to license exclusive content to a dead-in-the-water device like the Zune. I mean, Silverlight? Who in their web content team thought that was a good idea, and when will they vacate their jobs? I am available for an interview and will supply references upon request.)

Several of my compatriots took to the keyboards, composing paeans to the full bloom of maples metaphorical, declaring the fortnight as a whole (but the men’s gold medal hockey game in particular) a milestone of national pride for a country where the very idea of identity is a bit of a running joke. The statistics back this up: in an age where popular media has splintered and television has declined as a central force, to be the most-watched broadcast in Canadian history is no small feat. To say this will remain a defining moment in the country’s perpetual quest to come to terms with itself is to make a self-fulfilling prophecy: over two-thirds of active Canadian history textbook authors are likely to have watched the game (and probably more, if we suppose this demographic to be of a more patriotic bent than the mean). Comparisons to the Paul Henderson goal of 1972 can hardly avoid cementing themselves as fair, only this time we have victories in thirteen other competitions and a global audience in the mix.

The sheer neatness of the narrative should have us scratching our heads and running background checks on the referees to uncover scandalous past careers as European ice-dancing judges. Come to think of it, I should have known we were in for a Canadafest of unprecedented proportions when I caught the last half-hour of the opening ceremonies, at approximately the mark where the ever-undercapitalized k.d. lang broke the standing moratorium on Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”.

And yet it is striking to think how little of Canada as we know it now, how few of our quaint clichés of public exhibition, were around for the Calgary Olympics in 1988. The ink hadn’t dried on the Constitution Act, national unity was far from a given, and we hadn’t even reached the point where Céline Dion was considered a good idea, let alone a bad one.

This I do know about the Calgary Olympics: it created the entire sporting infrastructure of the city as I knew it growing up and as we continue to know it today. For citizens of my generation to imagine a Calgary before the Olympics is borderline impossible, and the spirit it injected into the civic culture, all too easy to take for granted in the ahistorical mist of youth, was in retrospect a full-fledged metamorphosis. For all the objections to the Vancouver games and uncertainties over whether it was money well spent, the legacy of its spillover benefits will course through the city for decades to come.

There is value in being world-class. It doesn’t matter if you contrive to suspend Parliament for months to secure yourself a once-in-a-lifetime seat next to Wayne Gretzky or celebrate in your ivory tower over a bottle of ink and a sheaf of parchment addressed to a newspaper that likes you; you can appreciate it all the same—yes, even if you’re in the UK.


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