My apologies for providing so little content this past month: my heart hasn’t been in the writing for a while, and there’s nothing worse than forced writing (see: every essay I’ve ever written.)
The Olympics started today, though, and it got my thinking about sports. I don’t follow sports at all. I suppose I’m a Toronto Maple Leafs fan by virtue of living in Toronto and growing up amongst Leafs fans, a sort of depressing fan-by-osmosis courtesy of the most consistently and endearingly disappointed fan base in the world. But that’s really as far as it goes.
The Olympics, though, are different. They bring out the fiery, brash nationalist in me. Human achievement in sport is all about breaking boundaries, but our geopolitical borders are harder to break than any world record. That I feel proud of people I’ve never met doing things I don’t particularly care about just because they happen to be fellow citizens defies logic, but I don’t pretend to above it at all. I love it.
The Winter Olympics are special for Canadians because we’re a winter people more than a summer people. Or at least that’s what the articulate among us say. We talk about the millennias spent by Aboriginals surviving the “unforgiving” tundra. We wax nostalgic for those brave European pioneers who settled the prairies during hellish Februarys. We pay with $5 bills imprinted with those immortal lines about church and school and hockey — la vraie vie était sur la patinoire. But the reality is less beautiful, a more basic, decidedly un-Canadian reason: there’s no greater feeling than winning.
Which isn’t to say that we actually win when one of our athletes wins — “our” athletes, like we personally got them up as teenagers for 4 am trainings and flew with them to Finland or South Korea for Grands Prix. But it feels like we won, by virtue of their citizenship, and that’s just as good most of the time. There’s a primal joy in celebrating a “shared” achievement, that we all won as Canadians when one of our athletes pulls off something fantastic. It helps that we usually have beer.
One of my favourite moments of my entire life — and surely one of my proudest moments as a Canadian — was the gold medal hockey game in Vancouver four years ago. There were 30 of us in rez watching, packed in to this little room — people on the couches, on the floor, standing on the side. When Sidney Crosby scored that final, magical goal, the one that fate conspired to give us only after testing us with some of the tensest moments of our national life, the room erupted. I mean erupted in a very literal sense. Not that you don’t know what I’m talking about — chances are you watched it, too. It’s the most watched event in the history of Canadian television. Two thirds of Canadians watched that goal live. TWO THIRDS. If that number seems difficult to imagine, let me try to put it in perspective: only about 1/3 Americans watch the Super Bowl every year, generally the year’s biggest television event.
And that’s part of the excitement of the winter games. The excitement for our winter sports — especially hockey — transcends every division we have in this country. Gender, race, language, sexuality, political affiliation. Everyone — no matter how blithely ignorant we are about the NHL, no matter how reserved we are in everyday conversation, no matter how many times we’ve criticized the vast piles of money spent by host cities — everyone watches hockey.
It’s the shared power of sport, and the Olympic’s attendant nationalism. Sport is unique in that it is both incredibly unimportant and profoundly meaningful. And that’s really what’s exciting about the Olympics, in the end. No matter how much we like to cheer our own countries, we recognize in the end that nationality is just a convenient way to divide people. But humans we all are, and some of us — young and daring and dedicated and brazenly competitive — are exceptionally gifted athletes. Jamaican or Norwegian or Canadian, at the end of the day the Olympics is a shared celebration of our species’ ability to be, quite frankly, amazing. Here’s to two weeks of amazement. Hopefully most of it from Canadians!
I’ll leave you with this perfect quote form my favourite author du jour, Adam Gopnik, who has this to say about why great hockey games are better than anything else. Hopefully we’ll get some great hockey this year!
A great game is a great show, and it’s also a great story. What makes those stories great is when they’re unpredictable but not unjust —uncharted enough that there’s no certainty of the result but organized enough that the result does not seem to be pure chance.