I Believe

Dear Canada,

I must, in true Canadian form, say “I’m sorry”. I doubted. All I could see was fault, all I could see was mediocrity, all I could see was the world laughing at our attempts to be more than our humble selves.  I thought that Vancouver was the wrong place to hold the Winter Olympics (having lived there a couple of years, I know how finicky the weather can be).

And I wasn’t alone. Thanks to media mainstays, such as The Guardian and the Denver Post, and CTV’s frequently slipshod and amateurish approach, there was little reason for me to think otherwise.

I find myself, now at the end, relieved to be wrong, and fiercely proud to be a repatriated Canadian.

The Own The Podium program had me enraged. It was meant to increase the chances of medal wins — to the point where we had the most medals. Not only was it arrogance beyond our Canadian norm, I found that the program sponsored only those who were in medal contention — and abandoned the rest. Considering we’re a socialist country, it seems a very un-Canadian setup. (And can someone tell me, please, why on earth the Men’s Hockey team received Own The Podium funding? It just seems odd to support millionaires who already have significant amounts of training and coaching resources.)

Then came the the death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili mere hours before the cauldron was lit.  (And no, Tom Clark, CTV did not need to show footage of the fatal run to “tell the full story”. That was utter pandering to sensationalist news coverage. You want to be better than CBC? You’d better act like you are, first.) The pall cast over the opening felt almost suffocating.

The opening ceremonies themselves were filled with a host of flubs: lip syncing (seriously, we are unable to trust our biggest performers to perform in public?), slight delays (starting even with the snowboarder not coming down on cue), and mechanical failures (erectile dysfunction, anyone?). Problems seemed to continue past the hutzpah, with broken ice resurfacing machines, and an ill-timed rampage by ill-tempted and extremely short-sighted rioters. The press ate us alive.

Our lauded best, held on pedestals for months, were put to the test. But the gold we were promised didn’t come. Our speedskaters failed to place, and our former moguls world champion could only garner a silver. And admit it, Canada, for a little while, you doubted, too. Had we put too much pressure on our athletes? Did we expect too much? Maybe where I failed was not to recognise it as a beginning of something bigger.

The next day — less than 24 hours after our first disappointment — things started to change. Someone I’d never heard of, suddenly appeared on top. After almost 34 years of waiting, Alexandre Bilodeau had won Canada’s first gold medal at home. For a moment, the country stood and cheered! We would walk away with something, at least. We would feel like we’ve achieved. Maybe — just maybe — it was enough to take away our collective dread. Or at least mine.

But the medals were still slow to come. It was two days before another gold from Maelle Ricker. Five days into the games, we had a mere five medals. Our hubris was an embarrassment. Our medals, though appreciated, would stand more as an example of an effort not carried to fruition.

And then something happened that we didn’t expect. It caught me by surprise, as I know it caught many others. A word that is rarely used in Canada, because of the imagery of our neighbours to the south that it usually invokes: Patriotism. Not a fevered adherence to dogma, but a feeling of national pride the likes of which have not been since I was barely two months old. We all suddenly noticed that you can’t spell “Canada” without “can”. And we did.

For me, it was the evening of the men’s skeleton finals, 19 February. Canada had already won another gold in speed skating, but it was Jon Montgomery’s victory that seemed to spark something in me. He is not your typical Canadian — he is brasher, bolder, more outspoken, and not afraid to do things in public that the rest of us would feel the urge to poo-poo as “not proper”. His primal scream of victory was the first cry, followed shortly after by a tremendous leap to the top of the podium at the sliding centre; he carried the entire nation with him in that moment. This time, I didn’t look back down. I — like you, Canada — looked forward.

I started to believe.

(And yes, I even started to like that “I Believe” song. Probably because after watching enough coverage, you don’t really have much choice.)

We started the second week with seven medals. Forecasts still placed us well into the 20s. Even with all of our victories in preliminary curling and hockey, it just didn’t seem possible. But funny thing about believing — you worry less about failing, and you don’t want to get left behind.

Our games started with difficult stories:  the disappointment of silver, the struggle in speed skating, and seemingly random disqualifications. The stories had changed. The commentators seemed to take on the energy not just of the crowds, but of the athletes themselves. The stories covered the brotherly dedication, the triumphant (and periodically beer-fuelled) victory marches, impromptu parades, double medals, first wins in new sports, and the sweetheart skaters who not only stole the gold but also the hearts of millions.

But no story could exceed that of Joannie Rochette.

I’m no figure skater — I can’t even skate, really. Growing up, though, I watched a lot of figure skating as a result of watching TV with my mom, a former skater herself, and still an adamant lover of the sport. So, in some small way, I am periodically attracted to it. It was with great fortune that I caught her performance, only days after learning her mother had suddenly died.

I couldn’t tell you how well she actually skated — I’m no judge — but I can tell you that on that night, Joannie embodied the strength and courage of an Olympian, producing her best possible performance, allowing herself tears only after she was done, to the sound of a thunderous standing ovation. Her medal may have only been a bronze, but as a local paper emblazoned on its headline: it was as good as gold to us.

Most of us Canadians never made it to the games, though I know more than a few who were there, who witnessed gold first-hand. The closest I ever got was my home in southwest Calgary, where I subjected my family to my growing obsession, cheering on my country in its quest for gold, to the point where Alex and I taught the Monkey to chant: “CA-NA-DA!” as loudly as she could. We all watched, we all cheered, we all hoped, and we all cried.

And we achieved. We achieved records the likes of which exceeded our expectations. Even with Own The Podium’s lofty goals, most of us never expected to set a record for the most number of gold medals won in a Winter Olympics. We might not have owned the entire podium, but we took the step that mattered the most to us: the top.

The top was capped with our national games: curling and hockey. Men’s curling gold, a three-time victory for the women’s hockey team, and a rematch against our oldest nemesis, the United States. It was joked many times by many people that the men’s hockey final would effectively close the entire country for the three hours the game would be played. I suspect the joke was not far off. The game would prove to be something special, especially to those born after the early 1970s — it would become my generation’s Summit Series, the game that we watched with extreme anticipation, desperately wanting that gold back in our hands.

Vancouver did something to Canada that few would have predicted, even with our previous experience with Calgary and Montreal. For a few weeks,  Vancouver brought together our country — six timezones and a hugely diverse culture (yes, Canada, we are not just one group; we thrive in our multiculturalism, even if we can’t always recognise it). Not just in representation, but in anticipation and celebration.  We broke out of our Canadian mould — we stopped thinking we’d stop short, that we’d choke right at the key moments — and we started to live the dream.

The media has suggested that maybe we’ll break out from our mould permanently, and be more like our cousins to the south. But we won’t. That’s not us. That’s not Canadian. These games are over, and we’ll return to our Canadian ways. But we won’t shrink away, we won’t forget what happened. We’ve gotten stronger; we’ve learned. We’ve learned how to perform, that success isn’t just a dream — it’s a reality. That we can compete head-to-head with the best the world has to show us, and not be just “that nice country”. We’re now that country: a tough competitor, a fierce opponent. The ones everyone else has to beat.

And it would be nice if we could get our legends back. Mr. Orser, are there not Canadians you can train? Can our curling coaches consider teaching our up-and-comers, rather than guide our competitors? And can we please treat all our athletes with some form of equality? If nothing else, these games proved that underdogs can achieve what no-one expects.

We’ll freely admit we had things that didn’t go perfectly. Massive events aren’t perfect — the best you can hope for is to mitigate the troubles. So, yes Mr. Kiszla, we had a few problems — I assure you that your lauded Denver games will have their own headaches that will made you cringe. And Mr. Donegan? I’ve heard better whining from my two-year old when her cereal ends up a bit soggy. Rather than suggesting you return to the golf courses you seem to understand so much better, I suggest you join London’s Olympic Committee and become personally responsible for London’s success. Because we’ll be watching. Closely.

Oh, and one more thing, Mr. Kiszla, about the trash talk? After listening to American bragging for so long, you have no idea how wonderful it is to say: It’s still our game. I believe it will remain that way for a long time to come.

One Reply to “I Believe”

  1. Well put Geoff!! I never thought that the whole premise of ‘own the podium’ was very realistic (in terms of having the most medals of any country). Even the first week there were several medals and a LOT of personal best performances. There were a LOT of our athletes in the top 10, who previously might have been in the top 20. There were medals and close to the top finishes in sports where Canadian athletes have never been close before (like the 50k cross country yesterday). And then – to end up matching, then beating the total number of gold medals for any country ever – WOW! I am so proud of our athletes, especially the guts (no other term for it) that Joannie displayed!

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