Cue the parade, cue the flag and the anthem and the torch.
It is, among other things, magnificent theatre, powerful ritual, like a mass and a rock concert rolled into one, and it delivers every time.
You may not be breathlessly awaiting the opening the Pyeongchang Winter Games. You may not have been tuned in to the goings on in luge or snowboard cross or cross country skiing over the last four years. The days leading up to an Olympics are invariably filled with folks talking about how they’d forgotten it was even happening, that somehow the buzz seems strangely subdued, and this time there are a whole host of factors (awkward time zones, global crises, the absence of National Hockey League players…) that may well have dulled enthusiasm compared to the past.
And then, lights, camera, action, and for 17 days the spell is woven once more.
That said, chances are that for Canadians it will never again be quite the way it was eight years ago, that delirious, innocent, heart-lifting patriotic haze that engulfed all but the most hardened during the Vancouver-Whistler Games. Far into the future, there will be smart people trying to figure out what that was really all about, but if you were here and you were watching, you can still close your eyes and conjure up the feeling.
There has been much water under the bridge since.
It is far more difficult to imagine what has become a coarser, angrier, more-polarized planet engaged in one big group hug around sport. The Doomsday Clock has crept closer to midnight, with ground zero a stone’s throw from where these Olympics will take place. And four years ago, the last time the world gathered to celebrate the sports of ice and snow, it turns out that the host country engaged in the most brazen act of systemic, state-sponsored doping since the demise of the former East Germany.
If you haven’t yet watched the documentary Icarus, it ought to be appointment viewing before the Pyeonchang Games begin. Then, with it still fresh in mind as the closing ceremonies role around, just try to feel all idealistic when the cowards in charge of the International Olympic Committee allow the currently-anonymous Russian team to march under its own flag. (It feels like a bit of a legacy-play, coming from a guy who spent all of those years sitting at the right hand of Juan Antonio Samaranch, but God love Dick Pound for standing tall and voicing uncomfortable truths….)
Doping certainly didn’t begin in Sochi, and it’s never going to end in “amateur” or professional sport. But because virtue is part of the Olympic creed, and especially part of Olympic marketing, the Games are uniquely vulnerable to cynicism.
In other words, this isn’t baseball and it isn’t the NFL….
Then there is the matter of the absent NHLers, which from the league’s point of view, was a sound business decision – just as it will be a sound business decision to find a way back in time for the Beijing Olympics four years from now. Before Nagano, the Olympics were an opportunity for Canadian fans to stew about the inequity of sending our second and third best against the former Big Red Machine, and in some ways, the combination of perpetual underdog status, coupled with the unshaken belief in our cultural birthright, was a comfortable place for us. If a Canadian team had pulled off the miracle on ice in 1980 instead of the Americans, it would a moment celebrated right alongside Paul Henderson’s goal.
What’s happened since 1998, though, in part because of the failure to fully establish the World Cup of Hockey as a successor to the Canada Cup, is that the Olympic tournament has become the forum for the ultimate test, best versus best. It was sensational – from a Canadian point of view – in 2002 and 2010, while 2006 has been all but erased from our collective memory. Four years ago, the complete, clinical domination of the tournament by Team Canada was satisfying on one level, but almost entirely without the sense of danger and suspense that has forever fuelled the national hockey myth.
It’s hard to know what we’re getting this time around, whether it will be a glorified Spengler Cup, or whether an underdog Team Canada can re-ignite some of those ancient, chip-on-the-shoulder passions. But the fact that we’re not talking now about McDavid and Matthews, Sid and Ovie and all the rest, has certainly muted the pre-Olympic hype.
So it’s different – all of that, plus stuff happening in the middle of the Canadian night.
But the truth is, we have been down this road before, through changing times, in the wake of boycotts and terrorism, mired in scandal, with the five rings submerged in crass commercialism, and still the formula has never failed, because the Olympic Games still give us something we deeply desire, and that we can’t find anywhere else.
On Friday, a Canadian team that is going to win all kinds of medals and will produce a host of instant, fresh-faced heroes will march in the opening ceremonies, and just try and watch without a lump in your throat.
That’s the beauty and the genius of it, for better or for worse.