Saturday, March 06, 2010

Looking back at the Olympics: The highs and lows

It's almost a full week since the Olympics wrapped up, so I thought now would be a good time to look back at them. The emotions have faded, allowing for more logical analysis, but the implications of the Games—both positive and negative—will still be felt for some time to come.

Ever since the Olympics were given to Vancouver, I've been juggling excitement and loathing. As I wrote in my initial piece, the Olympics are an interesting topic to write about, because they present such crass commercialism, excess and corruption alongside such genuine moments of inspiration. They bring highs and lows, and they come as a group package. I'm not a fan of those who fall head over heels in love with the Games while ignoring the very real issues and problems they present, but I'm also not a fan of those who lose track of the positives in their rush to condemn and criticize, especially when they hurt their own cause with senseless violence [Doug Ward, The Vancouver Sun]. The Olympics come as a package deal, and ignoring one side of the story is problematic, regardless of which side it is.

There were some brilliant highs for me during the Games. One of the best was the atmosphere that sprung up around town. It was a triumphant atmosphere, but a welcoming one as well from what I saw; it reflected Canadian pride, but embraced people from all nations. Moreover, it was refreshing to see Vancouver, which often seems so strait-laced, truly let down its hair and party for a few weeks [Bruce Arthur, National Post].

There were plenty of highlights from the athletic competitions as well, including the success of athletes like Kevin Martin, one of the best curlers ever [Neate Sager, Fourth-Place Medal], and the Canadian hockey team. There were touching stories, such as Alex Bilodeau's victory in men's moguls over Canadian-turned-Australian spyware king and all-around bad dude [Paul Waldie, The Globe and Mail] Dale Begg-Smith, and the inspiration Bilodeau's older brother Frederic, who has cerebral palsy, provided [Randy Starkman, The Toronto Star], the Canadian teams claiming gold and silver [Joe O'Connor, National Post] in women's bobsleigh, and CIS and CFL star Jesse Lumsden's impressive perfomance [Vicki Hall, Canwest News Service] in the men's bobsleigh.

For me, perhaps the ultimate moment was Jon Montgomery's gold medal [Dan Robson, CBC Sports] in men's skeleton [Jeff Blair, The Globe and Mail] and his ecstatic celebration afterwards, made even more appropriate by his win coming on the heels of [Jesse Campigotto, CBC Sports] Melissa Hollingsworth's defeat. Maybe it's just my hoserism talking, but there was something perfectly Canadian about the way Montgomery accepted and chugged a pitcher of beer on his way through the village to a CTV interview. It seemed to reflect the overarching attitude of Canadians towards the Games, with our desire to show the world who we really are, not some sort of PR veneer.

At the same time, though, those great moments often came in spite of VANOC, the IOC and the Olympic broadcasting consortium, not because of them. Right from the start, the Olympics were marred by the horribly tragic death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili, which CTV then tried to sweep under the rug. The IOC quickly went on to blame the victim rather than look at the real issues with the luge track's design, and the story was soon swallowed up by other problems with the Games, such as the bizarre decision to use hay bales for seating at Cypress Mountain (which resulted in massive amounts of tickets being revoked [Erik Rolfsen, The Province] thanks to unsafe conditions) and the failure [Martin Rogers, Yahoo!] of the supposedly green ice-cleaning machines at the speed-skating oval in Richmond, which led to another ridiculous move to bring in a Zamboni from Calgary instead of using one of the infinite supply of the machines available at other local hockey rinks. While all this was going on, CTV, the main Canadian broadcaster of the Games, was ignoring the vast array of problems cropping up in favour of unabashedly draping themselves in Olympic banners, carrying the torch (literally!) for the IOC and VANOC and passing over the stories and achievements of foreign athletes in favour of some good old-fashioned homerism. Don't tell CTV that there's supposed to be no cheering in the press box; much of the time, it appeared that they were organizing a pep rally for the IOC and Team Canada rather than actually trying to cover the Games. The endless corporate involvement also put a damper on things; it's tougher to enjoy an event that's supposed to highlight the purity of sport when you're bombarded with promotions for RBC and Coca-Cola all day.

Yet, a week later, much of what I wrote in my day-after piece still holds true. The commercialism, the mistakes and the problems were on full display throughout, but the Olympics found a way to overcome. There were brilliant highlights from many of the athletic events, some featuring Canadians and others featuring superb athletes from around the world (a few examples include Latvian bobsleigh pilot Janis Minins [O'Connor], Korean figure skater Yu-Na Kim [Maggie Hendricks, Fourth-Place Medal], and American Shaun White putting on [Trey Kerby, Fourth-Place Medal] the greatest snowboarding display I've ever seen.

Perhaps more importantly, there was a genuine enthusiasm and atmosphere that sprung up in Vancouver. It was both patriotic and inclusive, and that truly highlighted the Olympic spirit in my mind, no matter what some morons who fulfilled Godwin's Law [Dashiell Bennett, Deadspin] or trotted out the old Canadian cliches [Jason Brough and Mike Halford, Orland Kurtenblog] might think. Canadians truly embraced the Games, not in the way they were instructed to by VANOC, CTV and the IOC, but in a deeper, more real way that turned out to be much better. The enthusiasm was genuine, not commercial, and the Olympics displayed something pure and exciting despite the best efforts of those in power to reduce them to a sanitized commercial enterprise. That's what I'll take away from these Games, and that's why I'll remember them in a positive fashion.

[P.S. If you're looking to follow any of the writers linked above on Twitter, I highly recommend them. Most of them are listed in these tweets of mine; simpler than linking them individually in here.]

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