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A man comforts his girlfriend after police knocked her down during the Stanley Cup riots in Vancouver on June 15. (Rich Lam/Getty Images)
A man comforts his girlfriend after police knocked her down during the Stanley Cup riots in Vancouver on June 15. (Rich Lam/Getty Images)

John Doyle: Television

A kiss amidst the riot-porn salvages Vancouver's reputation Add to ...

I've covered World Cups, Euro Championship tournaments and many other soccer games in 14 countries on four continents. Big games, vast crowds of happy and disappointed fans.

I've been in the midst of 60,000 England supporters after a bitter loss. I've wandered among a crowd of 200,000 watching an important soccer game on giant screens on the street - with most of the crowd floating on beer. I've been there as 80,000 people flow out of a stadium, many perplexed and some furious about a poor refereeing decision. And I've never once felt afraid.

Previous columns by John Doyle

Worst trouble I ever saw was a guy throw a cup of beer at someone and quickly get hustled away by the cops. Hooliganism has long since been removed from soccer tournaments. So you'll understand why watching coverage of the post-Stanley Cup riots in Vancouver was particularly compelling for me. What utter nonsense has been spewed by reporters and pundits on TV. The police explanation, left largely unchallenged, is bunkum. Anarchists my posterior.

All vast crowds of sports fans have the potential to turn into a seething mass of rage. The potential for trouble is negated at soccer tournaments through a large but friendly police presence, the spotting of possible troublemakers in advance and making sure that there is a free flow of people away from the venue. Doing nothing is not an option. Doing too much - a heavy-handed reaction - is not an option. Being smart is what matters.

All I've seen on TV, across the networks, is pointless hand-wringing. Oh-dear, oh-dear fretting. The bizarre emphasis on the post-riot clean-up is just a redundant feel-good story. Layering that story with something about social-media helping link people in the clean-up is specious.

A number of issues have been ignored. Here are some.

What happened in Vancouver was a failure of policing and an indulgence of male rage that is part and parcel of the hockey culture. It's a short step from all that bellowing on TV about "establish the fore-check" and "get more shots and get traffic in front of the net" to rage on the street.

Hockey has political salience in Canada. A sometimes beautiful and sometimes brutal game, it has been co-opted by the Conservative government to become an allegedly defining Canadian quality, one of toughness, as the Conservatives try to remould Canada into a warrior nation, proud of being much more militarized. Putting so much emphasis on hockey as defining us in our new toughness - especially when done by figures in authority - only pushes up the temperature surrounding hockey. It's asking for trouble, though nobody wants to admit that. Instead, most media coverage, especially television, spews forth material about "thugs" and "mayhem." As if the culture of connecting hockey to military might could not be blamed.

Yes, it was a terrible embarrassment to Canada, given that TV news all over the world showed the footage of the riot. But the now-iconic image of the couple kissing on the riot-torn streets of Vancouver captures precisely what saves us from true embarrassment, in the end. There was much coverage of the mystery of the two people involved and the meaning of the image was lost. The photo captures how Canadians think of themselves and want the world to think of Canadians - decent, sweet-natured people, non-violent, much less aggressive than our crazy, violence-prone neighbours in the United States. Lovers and peace-keepers, not warriors and warmongers.

As someone who came to Canada more than 30 years ago and has watched and felt the country morph this way and that, I saw it as a Trudeau moment in a now conservative Canada. It was an image that captured the essence of small "l" liberal Canada. Amidst the violence, this couple - an Australian-born man and a Canadian girlfriend - personified an imperishable aspect of Canadian-ness, the will to cherish and embrace, not fight. The image fits with the way this country authentically imagines itself, not with what Conservative politicians want us to be.

What is spun to us by some politicians and pundits is a story, but a story is not the truth. The truth is messy and chaotic and in the midst of it, authenticity lurks and springs forth, as it did with this image.

Television adores the imagery of riots. There is a kind of riot-porn that exists in TV terms. The money shots are the burning car, the youth leaping on top of an overturned vehicle, the smashed window of a high-end store. On TV, the narrative of the riot is set in stone. The meaning of it all is buried under the rigidity of the set narrative.

The post-riot narrative is a search for the hero who tried to stop it, the deference to the police who are always shocked by the behaviour of the unruly and the enraged. True meaning never emerges in this narrative. It only emerges if you think about what you're seeing. All the talk on TV has been about "a terrible embarrassment to …Vancouver and/or Canada." No thanks to that conclusion. The image of the kiss rescued us.

Often the most exhilarating part of covering soccer all over the world is the feeling of being among the happiest people on Earth. I was reminded of all that on seeing the image of the riot-kiss, not by the riot footage on TV and the ceaseless bleating about it.

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