The Vancouver Games revealed a new Canada, one that cares less about being nice, more about being the best
Sport doesn’t define us, despite all you’ve heard about hockey and Canada and the national DNA. But it can be a mirror. Hold it up to the games that move us most and our reaction to them. What reflects back is an image that sometimes confirms cherished beliefs, and sometimes turns them on their head.
Moscow, September 1972? Paul Henderson’s goal preserved a cherished myth that before that moment had always been self-evident. We invented hockey, we were better at it than anyone else, we cared about it more than anyone else, and when push came to shove, our big, beating, pure-as-the-northern-air Canadian hearts would get the better of any godless commie robots.
Variations on that theme have been playing out ever since.
Vancouver, February 2010? Well, that was something else again.
In the two previous Olympics hosted here, we were so darned Canadian polite that we didn’t hog a single gold medal for ourselves. Was the show OK? Did you have a good time? Did you mind that the Big O wasn’t really finished and chunks of it were falling down, or that we had to substitute sand for snow during the Opening Ceremony when a chinook blew through Calgary? You liked it, didn’t you? Didn’t you?
Yep, that’s us—or at least that was us.
Then came the Winter Games four years ago, and though the lead-up featured all kinds of talk about owning podiums and exploiting home-field advantages and a whole new swaggering Canadian attitude, it wasn’t until the gold medals started to roll in that the penny dropped.
Who were these people who had created a pitiless sports machine that demanded results, that was all about winning and not personal bests, not the good try?
The Russians? The Germans?
No, that was the new us. And how about those flag-wavers, those face-painted anthem singers, those patriotic chest-thumpers? Had to be the Yanks, who have always helped us out in our identity crisis by providing an example of what we were not.
Wrong again. The mirror never lies.
Now, with the 22nd Winter Games in full swing, we get to find out whether it stuck, whether it was a one-time, hometown thing, or whether something in our character has shifted, more or less permanently. It’s Olympic time again, and though the London Games came and went in the interim, that was never going to provide anything comparable to Vancouver’s medal-winning orgy. Christine Sinclair and Co. certainly got pulses racing, but Sochi is the real acid test, back on snowy turf.
Played out far away, in a distant time zone, the spectacle wouldn’t be quite so omnipresent during waking hours. And with the former bad guys and their scary Fearless Leader in charge, with the requisite pre-Games grousing from a bored and jet-lagged press corps (remember the number the Brits did on Vancouver), it was easy enough to believe in the days before the cauldron was lit that it just wasn’t—it just couldn’t be—the giddy same.
Plus, if you talked to people in the know in the world of sports funding in this country, they’d tell you that Canada is in fact standing on a precipice right now, that all the public and private money that flowed automatically for Vancouver-Whistler began to dry up a little bit in the past four years (though in competitive terms, it’s still paying dividends), and that with the next Winter Games being held even farther away—South Korea—and with the participation of the NHL stars no sure thing, the message will have to be sent that if you want to continue with the triumphal march, somebody is going to have to ante up.
Would that happen if this time it didn’t seem to matter quite so much?
Then came day one, and those telegenic Dufour-Lapointe sisters delivered on the mogul slope when it mattered, the perfect combination of glowing smiles, a terrific family story and steely resolve, not at all unlike the first 2010 hero, Alexandre Bilodeau, whose groundbreaking gold came in the same sport. He repeated in Sochi, with a roar as he crossed the finish line.
(And what was that song playing during the heart-tugging television montage celebrating the Dufour-Lapointes’ victory? Hey Rosetta!? “Red Heart”? Heard that one somewhere before…)
At the medal ceremony, as the red maple leaf was raised and “O Canada” was played, a single perfect tear rolled down Justine Dufour-Lapointe’s rosy cheek, and in that moment you realized this clock isn’t turning back. We will never again be happy just to be there.
Winning, and caring about it, collectively, feels too good to let it go.
This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.