At the Sochi Olympics, Team Canada had two primary ambassadorial roles – hockey heavyweight and fashion visionary.
On site, you could only buy Russian gear in the official stores. That uniform looked as though it had been hung in a paint factory, which was then detonated. "Garish" doesn't begin to describe the result. Even Russian athletes standing on top of podiums looked embarrassed in it.
There was a thriving black market in the clothing of foreign teams. Hawkers would stand outside the gates and try to separate incoming fans from their sweaters and scarves. Canadian gear, with its spare design and classic colour scheme, was the most coveted and hardest to come by.
At one of the already-crumbling housing projects that had been built specifically for the Games, a few of the Canadian media took over a dingy drinking establishment called "Bar No. 4" (There was no Bar No. 3 or No. 5).
Although open 20 hours a day, Bar No. 4 seemed to have only one bartender – a strapping, hale-fellow-well-met type named Ruslan.
On the first night, Ruslan plied us with his homemade vodka, which you knew was the good stuff because "it does not make you go blind." He meant that literally. A great cross-cultural friendship was established.
By the end, we'd all agreed there was a 70-per-cent chance that Ruslan was a secret police officer – he claimed to be a hick from up the Urals somewhere, but spoke French and English fluently and took an overly keen interest in our thoughts on Vladimir Putin – but that didn't bother anyone.
It took Ruslan a week or so to work up the courage to ask for the thing he really wanted – a Team Canada tuque.
None of us had such an item. Ruslan was gutted. He moped about behind the bar for the rest of the night. It eventually occurred to us that we did have something – each of us had been given Team Canada mittens in our "Welcome to the Olympics" loot bag.
I fetched mine, still wrapped in plastic, from out of my room and gifted them to him, saying, "It's not the tuque, but maybe you'll like this instead."
Ruslan came back to life. He hugged each one of us in turn. There was a moment where it seemed he might cry, so great was his joy. We all felt very good about ourselves.
Ten minutes later, Ruslan returned to our table holding out the mittens and said, "This is not a tuque."
While I sat there stupidly, he handed back the gift and walked away.
A terrible silence fell over the group. Someone finally said, "It's like he just slapped you in the face."
A while later, we staggered out of the bar. Ruslan gave chase. He ran up to us breathless and said, "I have changed my mind. I will take the mittens."
What are you going to do? I gave the mittens back.
Ruslan had apparently spent the rest of the evening performing a capitalist recalculation particular to a Winter Olympics – the mittens weren't a tuque, but they were still Canadian mittens. Someone would pay for them.
It is against that conceptual backdrop that Hockey Canada unveiled its uniforms this week for the Games in Pyeongchang.
As best I can tell, no country obsesses over its Olympic wardrobe quite like Canada, and in particular its winter ensemble.
All of a sudden, the sort of people who wear cargo shorts to work are transformed into little Valentinos, dissecting the drape, cut and palette of a hockey jersey like it's the bride's gown at a royal wedding.
Is the maple leaf too strong? Exactly what font is 'Canada' written in, and why is it not Helvetica? And, seriously, what is up with those stripes on the sleeves? Are those supposed to be feathers or speed strips or what? Whose idea was that? Bring that person out so that we may all shame her/him/them.
Are the Swedes going to laugh at us? They might. They always look better than us, and they know it. And what if Russia finally gets it right this time? Where will that leave us?
I guarantee you the U.S. Olympic uniform will not provoke a fraction of the same reaction. Does it have the Stars and Stripes? Then, mission accomplished. Tell us when we should (or perhaps shouldn't) start caring. Probably the gold-medal game.
The fashion stakes are higher in Canada because the competitive ones are as well. Despite consistently leading them in terms of performance, the United States doesn't care very deeply about the Winter Olympics. Too many foreigners playing foreign games that nobody really understands.
Canada stands at the opposite end of the spectrum. Winter matters here. Excepting a few Scandinavian countries and perhaps Russia, much more than anywhere else.
So despite all the complaining, everyone in Canada will still buy something Olympic to strut about in for most of February. If the Games happened monthly, Hudson's Bay would be as big as Wal-Mart.
Unlike pro-team merchandise, national gear can be unironically worn in public by grown-ups. It isn't childish. It's patriotic. More than elections, Grey Cups or Canada 150, the Winter Olympics allows Canadians to sink into the warm embrace of harmless jingoism.
For three weeks every four years, we're No. 1. At a bunch of things. But mostly hockey.
That enthusiasm is apparently contagious. Other people want a little piece of it, creating a virtuous circle of interest. The more the Ruslans of the world want a Canadian tuque, the more Canadians want one as well. The more they are wanted, the more they will be critiqued. And then back around again.
A hundred days out from a Games (a road sign that was passed this week) is generally considered the beginning of an Olympic cycle.
But in Canada, at least, the real road to the Olympics begins on a tailor's bench. We can't head out to the party until we've decided what we're wearing.