The Vancouver Games began on a disastrous note - the heartbreak of a young athlete's death during a training run - but have gone on to become a success of the first order. They overcame inclement weather and countless other obstacles and exemplified what the Olympics are meant to be: a celebration of sport, and of winter, and of youth; an elite competition in a friendly spirit; a striving beyond previous boundaries of accomplishment.
These are the Games of figure skater Joannie Rochette, legs shaking (she would say later) as she went on the ice two days after her mother died of a sudden heart attack, ultimately to win bronze. They are the Games of Kim Yu-na of South Korea - Queen Yu-na, her compatriots call her - who amassed a world record for figure-skating points, and won that country's first gold medal outside speed skating. They are the Games of a United States team that set the standard for excellence in dominating the slopes, and the podium. They are also the Games of a host country sighing in relief when moguls skier Alexandre Bilodeau won its first gold ever on home soil, a country unexpectedly, shockingly, challenging the U.S. and Germany, on the final weekend, for the most golds overall. They are the Games in which Canadian women athletes packed a wallop, and took a back seat to no one in celebrating it.
It has been a great big party. In Whistler, Swiss fans have been parading through the streets beating cowbells as large as garbage-can lids. In Vancouver, commuters on the SkyTrain have broken into song. While that metropolis at the feet of mountains is hardly an alpine village, the warmth and intimacy of these games have been reminiscent of Lillehammer in 1994, which The Globe's James Christie once said was "compact enough to put your arms around the Games, and they hugged you back." Jacques Rogge, the president of the International Olympic Committee, put it this way: "I have never seen a city embrace the Games as Vancouver has done, it's really been astounding. I would say Sydney comes at the same level, but you cannot compare Summer and Winter Games. What we have seen here, in the streets of Vancouver, is absolutely extraordinary." Similarly, tuned in to television sets around the country, the audiences have been huge. It does not feel like a regional event, in part because of the pains John Furlong and Vanoc took to make it national, as in the torch relay that wound its way through so much of the country.
Even moments that might have marred the good feelings generated by the Games instead provoked only dignified responses, such as after Johnny Weir, the flamboyant American figure skater, was victim of a mean-spirited eruption by commentators on the French-language RDS channel in Quebec, with one saying Mr. Weir hurts figure skating's image, and another saying he should be made to take a gender test. Mr. Weir responded with humour and grace. "Every little boy should be so lucky as to turn into me."
As one gauge of the Games success, look at merchandising. The Hudson's Bay Company - which after 340 years knows something about the country - produced Canadian Olympics apparel that spoke to and of Canada. By the midway mark, Vanoc was already reporting that they had reached their merchandising sales goal of $50-million. In contrast, the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, in total, brought in less than half that amount.
The Vancouver Games have awoken a new Canada, one that aims high, risks failure and wears its heart on its sleeve. The country's Own the Podium sport-funding program had some British and other foreign journalists and athletes asking what happened to the pleasant, inoffensive Canada they knew. (The British Olympic slogan is "Better Never Stops"; their athletes won one medal. Better came to a crashing halt.) In any event, why should Canadians let themselves be defined by the stereotypes others have of them? It is difficult enough to get beyond the limiting vision we have of ourselves.
There was no bad blood over Canada's supposed hoarding of practice times. The European athletes understood the rules of the game, and the U.S. have dominated the slopes. Canada's home-field advantage on the hills fizzled.
A successful Olympics requires a strong performance from the athletes of the host country, and Canada may soon own the top step of the podium. A dream scenario, Canada's men's hockey team v. the United States tomorrow, for gold and the most overall golds, may unfold.
The Vancouver Games showed Canadians putting in place the supports needed for individuals to excel, without relying solely on government. There was a public-private partnership in its funding of the athletes, in its organizing committee and in the building of legacy facilities, whether athletic or housing, have demonstrated the potential of a new economic model. It's closer to a U.S. model, and that's good. The private sector is a great asset for all sorts of endeavours. Canada should use the Games as a springboard. Vancouver, long considered among the most livable cities, has finally been recognized for what it is, a world city. It should feel inspired to show global leadership, in areas such as its stewardship of its magnificent environment.
Far from being the "worst Olympics ever," as some members of the British news media declared after the first weekend, the Games have been a wonderful success. The exemplary performance from the U.S., which has roughly doubled Canada's total medal count, has raised the bar higher still for Canada. The world is growing, and the emergence of new competitors means we may never "own" a podium. But we can strive.
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