Ten years ago – February 12th, 2010 – the Vancouver Olympics got under way.
All Olympics are incipient disasters the day before they start. The weather’s wrong, some bogeyman is looming or someone has decided now is the moment to slip the final bill under the government’s door.
Vancouver was worse. Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili was killed in a track accident hours before the opening ceremony. The event began in tragedy.
But by its end, Vancouver would become the high-water mark of Canadian sports culture. It wasn’t the bottom-line success, though that was all new at the time; or capping the Games with men’s hockey gold, which was greeted like the repatriation of some stolen artifact.
It was the feeling Vancouver gave everyone. It was Canada at its most welcoming, absent the old tendency to obsequiousness and false modesty. It was a new sort of self-confidence – one without apology.
That this played out on the world stage with everyone else paying attention made it more significant than the 1972 Summit Series, which is really just us celebrating ourselves.
A decade on, Vancouver seems even more remarkable because it is unrepeatable.
Canada may play host to an Olympics again (though that seems unlikely since no one wants to pay for the thing any more).
But Canada will never hold one like that – an event that so unites all of us in agreement that it’s not just a good idea, but an irresistible one. A national project. We don’t do those any more.
Well, for one, Canada did. Two-thousand-and-ten was boom times. Everyone was getting along. The economy was chugging. The politics were agreeable, especially to our south. We were between existential global threats.
On the whole, the world seemed friendly and settled for a moment – Canada’s international-relations wheelhouse.
This calm extended from without to within. Canada was getting along with itself. If not always a happy family, at least one that could abide living with each other. In the years since, nationalism became a dirty word and regionalism reasserted control.
Were they to propose an Olympics in B.C. again, one can only imagine the transnational whining about why the rest of us should pay for a bunch of West Van sybarites to have a street party. It’d be a non-starter from the off.
The Olympics changed as well. They’d have another good time of it two years later in London – the summer twin to Vancouver’s winter triumph. Then it all went to hell.
Sochi was the black-widow Olympics before it became the Cheaters’ Ball. Rio was the class-war Olympics. Pyeongchang should have been the rapprochement Olympics, but then U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence showed up and it became the “Seriously, what is up with America?” Olympics.
The International Olympic Committee responded to the many complex threats to its basic values by adding skateboarding to the competition roster.
Russia? Well, the IOC is truly hoping it finally sees sense, but if not, Moscow should expect a strongly worded letter and another change to the colour blocking of their athletes’ uniforms. Maybe coral this time, or chartreuse. That’ll teach them.
In terms of brand appreciation, the Olympics spent the past decade in competition with Facebook trying to see who could fall furthest fastest. Were the IOC to adopt a new, crowdsourced motto, it might have a Snow White feel – “Dopey, Greedy, Costly.”
Sports changed, too. Own the Podium debuted in Vancouver and was a success. For a moment, two conflicting ideas – that Canada could be the gracious loser as well as the woo-hoo-ing winner – existed in balance.
But since then, Own the Podium’s core ethos – winning as first, second and third priority, love of competition reduced to a subparagraph in press releases – got hold of the country.
We can never again fully enjoy an Olympics in which Canada isn’t front-and-centre on the leaderboard.
There’s nothing wrong with that, as such. The point of the thing is that everyone does their best.
However, it does rob the experience of some of its amateur romanticism. It reminds us the Olympics are a business every bit as much as the NHL. Where we were all once its fans, we are now its shareholders. And Canadians expect a good return on their investment.
And then the world changed. Threats grew. New wars and revolutions started. The United States turned in on itself, which was a signal for everyone else to start doing the same. Wider Western culture entered a period of ennui and doubt about the future. You can argue the rightness or wrongness of things such as Brexit, but you cannot argue what they represent – retreat. We’re pulling away from each other, taking fewer chances and putting out less optimism that tomorrow can be better than today.
With its focus on growth and youth, the Olympics thrive on that sort of futurism. They start and end with a literal handing off of the torch. Take that context away and the Olympics are reduced to an astronomically expensive track meet.
Vancouver 2010 ducked in just before the door started closing on this golden age, one that stretched nearly 30 years from Los Angeles ’84 to London. It wasn’t anywhere near perfect, but looking back on it now, it’s beginning to seem that way.
Think of how you felt about things during that Vancouver Games. For many, they will be the standard for national amity and whatever it is we mean when we try to define Canadianness.
I suppose if there is one hopeful idea in the midst of this gentle and, one hopes, temporary tilt downward, is that we know the Olympics are a bellwether for global serenity.
When and if the Games return to their best self, perhaps all the rest of us will have as well.