Wednesday, March 3, 2010

2010 Winter Olympics: “D’Oh, Canada” and “Go, Canada”

When your pictogram looks like someone who has set down the iron to mop, you might not be a sport.

Reflections of a barely casual observer ...

In the past 17 days, I have not watched 17 minutes of Winter Olympics coverage on NBC. NBC’s appeals to pathos, mawkishly dripping with sentimentality, have never piqued my interest, nor, for that matter, is the celebration of sports that are inaccessible (and uninteresting) to 99% of all Americans. Moreover, the nationalist pride I am supposed to feel over watching American ‘athletes’ compete for Olympic gold in ‘sports’ such as curling (frozen shuffleboard), biathlon (“bi” is a misnomer, cross country skiing requires athleticism, rifle shooting does not), and other contrivances (snowboardcross is essentially snowboard NASCAR, only inviting the viewership of those interested in the crashes). This isn’t to say that many athletes competing in these events are among the world’s elite, and it isn’t to say that bobsledders, speed skaters, and ice dancers don’t meet the highest standards of athleticism, no matter whose aesthetic is considered. Its cultural – I grew up in south Louisiana where the only running we do in the cold is for courir de mardi gras, the only shooting we do in the cold is at deer and fowl, and if we are dancing in the ice, it is only because hell (and Louisiana) has frozen over because the Saints won the Super Bowl.

But I have taken a keen interest, at times, in this most recent iteration of the Olympics. For one, much of the news emerging from Vancouver has not been good. From the tragic death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili on a course known for its “50-50” turn[1], repeated bobsled crashes on the same course, weather delays in Whistler that relegated planners to having to use fake snow for downhill skiing (you could actually see grass and clumps of dirt flying all over the course when skiers came down the course), and an ominous start, when the Olympic torch wouldn’t light properly. Additionally, the underperformance of the host Canadians across the board (losing the total medal count 37 to 26 to the United States, in third place behind Germany’s 30), and potential $875 million debt that will be left to Vancouver to pay for the Games (according to Kelly Sinoski of the Vancouver Sun) had to be difficult for Canadians to deal with. Certainly Beijing, in need of positive public relations due to its country’s reputation as a Communist, anti-democratic regime with a sketchy human rights record, perhaps could justify the billions it spent on the last Olympics, but can Vancouver really justify spending hundreds of millions of dollars to threaten an already sterling reputation as a clean, beautiful Canadian city? Especially considering that the games haven’t necessarily had as much good news to report from the city as bad, and frankly, did not paint this beautiful city in the most positive light. After all, the dancing Mounties, fighting hockey players, and flying beavers at the closing ceremony, and the repeated, insane mentions of NBC’s folks labeling all Canadians as “very very nice people” as if Canada owns the patent on geniality smacked of a Monty Python sketch.

Canada’s loss to the United States in a preliminary matchup of men’s hockey was the icing, on an, at times, iceless Olympic games. Coming up with a loss in their de facto national sport, on their home frozen turf, versus Americans competing in our 11th favorite sport (according to Gallup, just below track and field, just above professional bowling) was simply too much for most Canadians to bear.

Secretly, out of pity and rationality, and also because I feel no threat to my national pride in rooting for another country to beat us at a sport that is utterly insignificant to most of the country, I rooted for Canada to win in the gold medal matchup. The way that they won the match, in overtime on shots on goal, was about as fitting an ending as I could have imagined (Do you believe in completely reasonable conclusions to hockey matches?!? YES!!!). For one, the United States won silver, which was a major accomplishment in and of itself (many would have probably expected Russia to appear in that gold medal game instead of the United States). Secondly, from what I hear, the competition was exciting and evenly matched (courtesy of the NHL, there were an equal number of professionals on each team). And finally, morning in America was completely uninterrupted by the loss while Canadians are probably beaming with national pride and glory right now, perhaps making the nearly billion dollar investment worthwhile.

I felt badly for Canada as the game approached. I remembered how disgusted I was in the United States Basketball teams’ performances in the 2002 World Championships (sixth) and the Summer Olympics of 2004 (third) and how it truly felt as if a paradigm had shifted. Surely, I didn’t lose sleep over it, but it felt odd, and threatening somehow in 2004 to watch the “Dream Team” lose as many games in a single Olympiad as they had in all other previous ones combined! Canadians may have felt the same pains late in 2009 when Team USA defeated Team Canada in the IIHA Junior Nationals. On their home turf. As ominous a prelude as three out of your four flames lighting up at the opening ceremonies.

Now, in addition to better beer, better health care, and better treatment of indigenous peoples, Canadians can now add “and that time we beat you guys in hockey for the gold medal” to their national list of adages that prove that Canada is a better place to live than America.

I’m happy for Team Canada and the country for their win. And Team USA should feel no shame at all for its performance (unlike the athletes I derided earlier, Sidney Crosby is no punk …).

More than anything, I’m mostly happy to have a regular schedule on NBC and MSNBC again.

[1] Because only 50% of the lugers and bobsledders actually survived the turn.