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Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)
Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)

Jeffrey Simpson

Here we are, finally, holding high the torch, set for glory Add to ...

Six months before the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, grumbling punctuated conversations throughout Australia. Too expensive, critics sniffed. Sydney gets everything, said some who lived elsewhere. Think of the traffic jams, the inconvenience, the inadequate transportation system from downtown to the main site. A wickedly funny television series pilloried the organizers.

And then the world arrived. Sydney put on a magnificent show. Australia also did well, hauling in buckets of medals. When Advance Australia Fair, the national anthem, filled the venues after another Aussie win, there were tears of joy and pride. The grumblers vanished and, today, it's hard to find anyone Down Under who doesn't think the Sydney Games was worth every penny.

So it will be in Vancouver for the next two weeks, and thereafter. There will be protesters - there always are - who will be disregarded. There will be carpers about the costs, but the Games forced infrastructure improvements that the Lower Mainland badly needed - such as the rapid transit line from the airport and the widening of the Sea-to-Sky Highway - and that residents will use for decades to come.

Last night, the Olympic torch was lit at B.C. Place. Whatever happens in the athletic competitions, the memory of the torch run across Canada will remain.

Seldom in Canada's modern history has an event, or rather a multiplicity of events strung into one, been so superbly organized, so touching, so completely national across such a vast place, and so rooted in communities.

For 106 days, starting Oct. 30 in Victoria, tens of thousands of Canadians watched the torch being carried through their communities, from Arctic villages to Newfoundland outports, across all the provinces, to its final resting place last night. The torch run was a national event, in every sense of the word.

In Quebec, it was feared that the torch run would stir little interest, but those doubts were banished. Francophone Quebec athletes have always figured prominently on Canadian Olympic teams. They've won many medals, and brought pride to their communities, province and country. When they turned out to carry the torch in their native province, a flood of memories of superb past performances washed across those who watched them.

No wonder the Parti Québécois and the Bloc Québécois don't like the images of the Games. They are always demanding a separate Quebec team, as the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish have for world rugby and soccer competitions. They can see that the Olympics transcend their narrow definition of nationalism.

We were blown away by the brilliant mixture of hundreds of ordinary citizens who really wanted to carry that torch and Canadian superstars, some of whom came from afar to return to the places where they were raised.

Strokes of genius were many: Shania Twain, the singer of world renown, in her hometown of Timmins; Steve Nash, the genius on the basketball court, in the Lower Mainland; Peter Lougheed, the best premier Alberta ever had; and all those Olympians of Games past, including Barbara Ann Scott, the figure skater of yesteryear, arriving unannounced on the floor of the House of Commons. And give a round of applause to RBC, the main corporate sponsor.

Think about the logistics of that torch run: thousands of miles, hundreds of organizers, media relations everywhere (a plug for The Globe and Mail, which used the coverage of the run to let us peer into every corner of Canada). The whole, complicated thin red line across the country went off without a hitch, like the kind of event military planners dream about but can seldom execute.

There will be, as always, moments of exultation and disappointment - for the athletes, of course, and for Canadians who've been led to believe that, this time, on their soil, disappointments will be outnumbered by triumphs. The bar of expectations has been set higher than ever, what with the government program to support elite athletes (how very un-Canadian!), the superior knowledge of local conditions, the fan support at every event.

The pressure on athletes will be more intense than anything they've ever experienced, and nowhere will this be more evident than the men's hockey team. One shudders to imagine the disappointment - no, the humiliation and anger - were this team to repeat the fiasco of the seventh-place finish at Torino.

The attention of the country will be riveted on Vancouver/Whistler for two weeks. The dream of playing host started more than six years ago; the International Olympic Committee vote in favour of Vancouver/Whistler was desperately close; the doubters and the skeptics never went away. But here we are, ready for a wonderful event, still remembering all those memories of a torch being handed across this imposing land.

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