The Olympics are ludicrously expensive, crassly commercialized, and altogether rather frivolous. But can they also change the spirit of a country? I think I saw something like that happen at the end of February in Vancouver, the last time the Olympic flame will be lit before it makes its way towards London in 2012. Vancouver’s known as Canada’s third largest city, and one of the most beautiful places on earth. It’s also the city I was born and raised in and, Hilary Term be damned, there was no way I was going to miss the Olympics coming to my home town.
The Olympics put the spotlight on the host country like no other occasion, and give it a chance to strut its stuff. The question, then, is what stuff? Britons have been fretting over this question ever since Boris Johnson stumbled into the Beijing closing ceremonies followed by a fold-out double-decker bus. Canadians had similar concerns. Not only was there the expense, the strain on infrastructure, the prioritization of a trivial display over graver social concerns; the main worry, underlying all these, was simply what we have to offer.
In America they have a saying: ‘As American as apple pie.’ Never mind that apple pie was an English export, Americans have always had a strong sense of who they are and what they stand for. Some years ago, the CBC (Canada’s BBC) decided to address Canada’s comparatively weak sense of identity by holding a competition to find a suitably Canadian simile. The winning entry? ‘As Canadian as possible under the circumstances.’
‘The circumstances’ range from being swamped by American popular culture to having a vast country divided by two languages and various regional identities. Despite our image as the wild and rugged North, we’re a largely urban nation whose largest cities all hug the southern border as if they were waiting impatiently to be let in from the cold.
In other words, we’re a model former British colony: we’ve absorbed the self-deprecation and lack of chic and taken the bad weather thing to a whole new extreme. Britain and Canada both like to maintain a quietly smug sense of superiority while asking ourselves what we have to feel superior about. Britain’s greatest achievements lie in its past, and the empire is a bit embarrassing in a post-colonial world anyway. Canada’s just the eighth largest economy in the G8, and we’d rather you all forget that Céline Dion is Canadian anyway.
The Games started inauspiciously enough. Unseasonably warm weather forced helicopters to ferry extra snow over to Cypress Mountain. A Georgian luger was killed in a training run on the day before the Games opened. A clumsy technical mishap marred the opening ceremonies. And as the Games got underway, Canadian athletes began to exhibit their nation’s fixation on mediocrity by falling short of expectations. I arrived in Vancouver just in time to sit down in front of the TV to watch the men’s round robin ice hockey match against the hated Americans, who beat us 5 – 3.
Then things started to change. Gold after gold, Canadians actually started to win. By the final day of competition, Canada had notched thirteen gold medals, tying the record for the most ever at a Winter Olympics. One event remained: the ice hockey final, and a rematch with our American rivals.
It was one for the ages, with the Americans scoring the tying goal with just 24 seconds left, sending the match to sudden-death overtime. When the young Canadian superstar Sidney Crosby netted the game winner the cheers were deafening. Well into the night, flags were waving, people were hugging, and my hand was numb from all the strangers high-fiving me. I slapped hands with a gorilla in a Canadian hockey sweater and walked past a red-and-white Teletubby with a maple leaf on its belly screen. If a city could have a collective orgasm, this is what it looked like. Something truly bizarre was unfolding.
What exploded onto the streets of Vancouver was a national pride that had never been absent, just kept under wraps. The gold medals were a catalyst and not a cause: what Canadians learned over those two weeks was that showing national pride wasn’t boastful, it was healthy. It caught us all by surprise, an outpouring of collective emotion we hadn’t realized we’d been bottling up. Having released it, we can’t put it back in the bottle.
It’s far too soon to tell how lasting the change will be, or how deep, but something changed in Canada in February. The Olympics taught a country to love itself openly.
Can London 2012 do the same for Great Britain? There are plenty of reasons to be sceptical: The British aren’t known for their naked displays of emotion and it’s an old country that’s maybe too much in the habit of casting itself in a state of slow decline. But the Games didn’t provide answers for Canada’s similarly soul-searching questions so much as they showed them to be relatively unimportant. There’s plenty to celebrate even if we don’t know exactly what it is.
The Vancouver Games are hardly an isolated example. Germany-a country with national pride issues if ever there was one-experienced a similar turnaround while hosting the 2006 World Cup. Seeing so many foreigners gleefully toting their own national flags, Germans came to realize they could fly their flag and proclaim their fondness for Germany without apology. Sport is a trivial affair, and that’s precisely why it can have such a tonic effect. You don’t risk offending anyone by cheering for the home team.
Canadians didn’t learn anything new about themselves in hosting the Olympics, and nor will the British in 2012. The discovery was simply how much we loved what we already knew. One of the lessons from Vancouver is that what really matters isn’t the events themselves but the people enjoying them, and that the effect can be profound and surprising.