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home ice: breakfast of champions

there was a moment late in the third period when i thought: this is too easy, and that's just wrong. it would be better hockey (and a cleaner win, if it went that way after) if they tied it up now. because the US team was certainly good enough. and because that's never the best way to win anything, letting the clock run out. too lazy. Marty Brodeur told them from the box, keep pushing, but they didn't get the message: maintaining the status quo is always a good way to lose, you know? - momentum, entitlement, whatever you think you've got. then at the two minute mark, the stands began to cheer and i thought, well maybe that's it, that's all, but me, i'd rather see them earn it from start to finish. but with twenty-some seconds left to go, the american team tied it up. good stuff, that; changes the gameboard. and then in overtime, Sid Crosby nailed it, to his own surprise, on a sneaky little instinctive shot on goal that even Illyria might have approved of, showing his mettle at last. a so much better way to go out, owning the rink, not just keeping up with the paperwork. to the credit of both teams.

i know what i wanted was never down to medals. Canada was hosting; i wanted them to show good form in that arena. and just between you and me, it's not always easy to show good form, if you're losing - or if you're winning. it's tempting to make it personal. it's tempting to make it a grudge match, or bet the farm on it. so it's a delicate dance, between toasting a team's achievements and slighting those from other nations. i looked to see in every crowd, some mingle; i wanted a sense that at Whistler, and in Robson Square, everyone felt included, and was welcome. i wanted to hear every good race applauded, no matter what color they were wearing. i liked best the athletes who lingered to congratulate one another's victories, who felt bad for every spill that cost someone four years, or fifteen maybe, of training. i toasted every remarkable performance. sometimes it's all about grace under pressure, and that's true even after everyone's over the finish line.

and i think i got it. i did hear cheers for every remarkable performance, for every nation. i also heard cheers for our athletes, even when they lost, even if they made mistakes that cost them races. i did hear our athletes praising their competitors' performances. i did see people worry about every athlete who didn't get right back up on their feet to show they weren't injured. the commentating for every sport was here knowledgeable and even-handed. i relished every hug between all three winners on the podium after hard-fought races: even if tears were flowing, i wanted them to remember to be generous. i applauded the athletes who acknowledged the role of luck in the draw, who when interviewed admired the performances of others even in their own races. after the russians lost their path to the title, in a critical game in which canadians simply owned the ice throughout, owned every play (playing a very different game than they played against the US), the mostly canadian audience didn't let them leave without a standing ovation that came from the heart, a tribute to their standard of play. and the russian team, though bitterly disappointed and departing to be dressed down at home, even acknowledged the tribute with a wave. and this is what i expect to see at every olympics, whoever owns the home ice, whatever the history is between them.

when Joannie Rochette won bronze in women's skate, i worried that people might think she got the marks unearned. because there was a younger skater after her last skate that to my mind was every bit as good (and made no errors), and i was relieved when the international papers didn't seem to feel it was rink robbery. my aunt and i had a conversation at the time about playing the bravery card, of the kind that went yeah, she was, but so was the skier from Slovenia who crashed badly and went back up the hill and came down it again anyway to win a bronze she couldn't even stand alone for, with four broken ribs and a collapsed lung. (our coverage included a doctor's play by play about what it cost physiologically to compete in that condition too, and the collapsed lung part was scary.) and there were sliders and skiers there who were afraid to go down both courses because they were so tough, but they did it. but then a few days later, the Terry Fox medal for the games, a Canadian institution awarded specifically for bravery, was awarded to both players, and i never met anyone who didn't think that was the right way to do it.

and there was Slovenia at the closing ceremonies, and Georgia too that lost a man as the games began, and Russia (without the hockey team). many of the athletes train together with the Eastern bloc and the Far East, down in Australia during our summer season, and then in the Winter games of course they often meet. so often they are closer to one another than the countries they represent. which is really part of the glory of the Olympic experience, after all. and in every sport we watch, we pick our own champions, based on whatever. not always because they are from our country, by any means: based more on the skillz they've got, how plucky they are, what personality they convey. and we root for underdogs, will them to get up every time they fall. and we get to know them a little.

who could fail to fall for Shawn White soaring into the stratosphere, twice as high as every other contestant (and with twice the points, which is unique in any olympic sport): he changes the game everywhere every time he competes, and he's building an empire off the gear, but in the game he clearly does it just for the rush, to soar and stop at the top of the world, and he'll do it forever whether or not the world is watching. i also liked Lindsay Vonn, against expectations (she's kinda billed as the completely pre-packaged champion, and she was ribbed a bit about the vontourage in Vonncouver): she didn't win as often as she was supposed to, but in a way that's the test of a real champion, isn't it? she was darned gracious in defeat, elected to be proud of the silver, looked out for her nearest competitors because they are friends, hated to see anyone hurt, and in spite of the hype her runs were so clean, with so much power to burn, it was easy to see how she got there. who could get mad at Evgeny Pleshenko, who just likes to shake things up, have his bit of fun.

and so it went with countless other competitors, in sports we hardly knew until we saw them fly, and fall, and push themselves to do things that bodies were never meant to do. there were a lot of conditions to surmount that scared them all. but down the mountain, down the sledding run, they all went anyway. i liked especially the competes in which they had two, three, or four runs to average out: wipeouts happen to everyone, even in this rarified atmosphere, and it's heartbreaking sometimes when at least four years of prep work can come down to the sudden-death ending of one single run (three and a half seconds in the air, in men's aerials).

why did it come together in Vancouver, all this energy, this spirit, in this olympics rather than any other? Canada has hosted before. we were better funded this time than usual, true, but for most people, including the athletes, it wasn't the medals that mattered anyway. though it was nice to see when all that hard work did pay off. there was a point where i felt the main newscaster (CTV) hosting was getting a bit above itself, asking questions like: 'this was expected of you. how did it feel not to meet those expectations?' which was just wrong. but they got the picture eventually, and dialed it way down. the play by play commentators were awesome right through, and that's the part that really counts. i even learned a little bit about curling.

and the medal count, in the end? the USA achieved 37 medals, a new record. but Canada also got an amazing record with those 14 golds. Canada has one-tenth the population of the USA, and yet we even had more people attending in all those games than ever before. and those Canadian medals are equally spread too through all the categories, not just amassed in one specialty like Alpine or shorttrack. but hey, although Neil Young coulda justifiably closed on "Heart of Gold", given that he is canadian (his dad a famous sportswriter, in fact) he naturally preferred to go out with the whole different vibe of "Long May You Run" instead. and so say we all.

here's what i think made it happen. first, there was the torch. i don't think anyone's ever done the torch ceremony like that before. that torch went from the east coast to the west coast, and from the top of the world on down, in relays that sent it from one small town to the next right across the country. thousands of people carried that torch, and thousands more lined the streets and highways of every town it went through on its way: carried and witnessed by every local hero (not only in sports) along the way. by the time the torch arrived at its finish line, it was a metaphor that on the page belonged to all of us.

and then, the narratives. television had any number of those on display for months before the games: they introduced all the athletes in a variety of ways - there was an I Believe series of little bits, in which they spoke for themselves and we saw them in action, and a people-who-inspired-them series done by Rick Hansen that was more in-depth, and there were other vignettes too. by the time we got to the actual olympics, it felt like we knew them, even if they'd never competed before. we cared about them, we knew their dreams. even the ads acquitted themselves well: mostly done for the occasion by companies who contributed substantially to the games (PetroCanada, for instance, paid to send the families for many athletes to the games, for instance, which possibly contributed substantially to the whole ordinary-people-coming-together feel of the whole thing - and perhaps also to the inspiration and grounding displayed by the athletes themselves under pressure). and a lot of really imaginative commercials about the games, the athletes, what it all meant, came out of that involvement. personal. even the ads felt personal, added to the narrative flow.

so by the time the games began, it was already clear that the overall arc of story was not gonna be about the numbers, whatever the organizing committee may have thought, but rather about the people. we knew their stories. so it became all about the experience. specifically, the shared experience. the athletes were already our neighbours. and they were all ordinary people, with extraordinary skills and aspirations. we could share that. we could buy into that. and after the Georgian guy died - that was our reputation at stake. Canadian hospitality rules applied. we said so. the fence around the flame came down, the medals counters got outvoted, security got a lot more unobtrusive, the athletes all got their practice runs. a not-so-quiet pride erupted, that we could all own. they were our games this time round, and we expected them to meet a certain standard.

after all, it was our party. someone had to represent us. there were thousands of volunteers at those games, and they'd all paid their own way. not just to be there, but to help. even after that marred beginning, nobody bailed; instead they elected to retrieve the narrative, re-interpret the story. people started calling in sick if they had to, heading for Vancouver, hanging out in Whistler, even if they didn't have tickets. lots of people in their twenties, lots of first generation canadians. there was something for everyone to share, both pride and hospitality. people sat glued to their sets for 17 days.

Alex Bilodeau had the luxury of less pressure when he earned the first gold. he owned the sensation of coming down that hill for a perfect run just for the joy of it - since it was Jen Heil in women's mogul later that was supposed to medal. (and when did medal become a verb anyway?). and yes there was Alex's older brother at the finish line cheering him on. he's got cerebral palsy, he's his brother's inspiration. we knew him already from the narratives. he had his own story to tell, too, when we got to know him better, about how he thought of it, what it meant to him.

then Mellisa Hollingsworth lost in skeleton. lots of 'expectations' there, and she'd taken them too much to heart. she was inconsolable at the finish, felt she'd failed her country, couldn't get out of bed the next day at the Village. people started sending her emails. people she'd never met. and the message was: listen, forget the hype, we don't care that you missed the medal, you'll have better days, you did your best, you're still a champion in our eyes.

but meanwhile Maelle Ricker got up the morning of her big race to fog and rain, pronounced it a perfect day to make her run down the mountain. $10 a run, it normally cost, to go down the hill, which added up to way too much money she didn't always have to spend, and though she'd become a bit of a legend among the athletes she didn't have a lot of wins to show for all she'd contributed - but this time, bonus, the run itself came free). so down she goes for the sheer elation of making the run, and wins a gold in snowboard cross which doesn't actually seem to much strike her at the time, she's still too blissed out about how it felt going down that hill, she hasn't got to the bottom yet and maybe she never will. she likes to quote her own hero on the subject of how long she'll last: so she says that she'll still be coming down the hills around Whistler when all her parts are metal.

and then Jon Montgomery made his run. not the medal run in the skeleton, though that was cool too, the way he started well short of the mark, out of contention really, but kept on improving on it with every run until the last awesome push. but i mean Jon's victory lap into the center of Whistler, laughing at the unexpectedness of fate, high on the crowd. in the melee somebody hands him a pitcher of beer, so he's got his helmet in one hand, the pitcher in the other, and he's chugging the contents one-handed on the fly like some slightly mad seductive faun. and everyone seems to know him, cheering as he passes. gets to the interview waiting on the street, in the dark, and all his family's there, so more stories ensue about the famously laid-back Jon and his mad dream, and how him and his mom both got tattoos when he graduated high school and she confides that hers is a small maple leaf on the ankle but his says Canada right across his chest and Jon says well, he just decided one day he'd like to win an olympic medal for Canada and he didn't care if he did it in tiddlywinks so then he cast around for a sport and kinda took to skeleton when he tried it, so then the announcer asks him to auction off what's left of the pitcher as a momento (in his day job he's an auctioneer) and the bidding gets to about $1000 in no time flat before they're laughing too hard to keep it up. did he ever get worried after the start? nope, he knew all along that second day was gonna be his.

and Jon and Maelle become hometown legends early on, and then keep being spotted everywhere, just hanging out, still high on the atmosphere, the de facto King and Queen of the mountain at Whistler, and everyone hails them in passing to say congrats. and somehow the streets of Whistler have become full both day and night but there's never a problem with crowd control. everyone interviewed sounds elated, even euphoric, but never an unkind word gets said about any competition. and the same is true at Robson Square in Vancouver. people on the streets develop their own training regimens: set themselves challenges of the type 'how many different countries have you counted among the people you've met?' in this game they congratulate the other nationals on their own athletes; and find that people from other nations are unaccountably often surprised to know that Canadians have seen their favorites, noted their performances, and even cheered them on.

and there's a crowd in a small town in Saskatchewan the tv crews look in on, who got together to watch Jon's run because he comes from there; there's another in a small town in Quebec where Joannie comes from, all rooting for her. and another in a small town in Nova Scotia where Sidney Crosby comes from. sometimes they meet in a bar to watch these events, other times they've rented the community hall to see their hometown kids, their neighbours, play. and they're full of reminiscences, of course, about what the athletes they're watching were like as children. Scott Moir and Tessa Virtue, that's two more towns in southwestern Ontario to look in on, where another full house is cheering them on from home base, including the aunt that put them together to skate when Tessa was seven. and after the ceremony, coming off the ice Scott's brothers up in the stands lean over from five rows up to give him a joint hug that lifts him up into the stands.

and after they're done Scott and Tessa linger to see other events. we even catch a glimpse of Tessa standing in the wings with tears rolling down her face when Joannie wins her bronze. and there they are together, cheering at the hockey games. and you know, the thing about hockey at the point of origin is, it's not really meant to be a spectator sport: you propose a game, do your darnedest to win the faceoff, and then both teams adjourn to the pub to do the postgame together.

that last part, it also belongs to the game, somewhere close to the heart, the part that isn't (yet/always) made of metal. though possibly of mettle. so when the last game's over, it's no surprise when they close downtown Yonge Street in Toronto to all but pedestrian traffic, because it's already wall-to-wall people in the street, just coming out to share the high with one another, passersby sharing a hug spontaneously in passing because it's a story to which we feel like we all belong.


( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
Mar. 2nd, 2010 06:05 pm (UTC)
It was a very different perspective for someone watching in the US.

NBC's coverage was laudatory toward Canada, but I followed the games online, too. I saw clips of crowd reaction that NBC, out of decency, did not air. I read the comments at CBC and the Guardian and other places. And I was hurt.


People die from lack of healthcare in the US. In the last 15 years I've lost four friends who died of preventable causes, in the prime of life. I miss them.

Edited at 2010-03-02 06:06 pm (UTC)
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )