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(Peter Power/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
(Peter Power/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

Roy MacGregor

Olympic Games bring out our best - or is it worst? Add to ...

Think of it as releasing our Inner Latvian.

Or The Ugly Canadian.

Or The Golden Swagger.

It doesn't really matter how the phenomenon is perceived, it is nonetheless real: The Winter Olympics have an effect on Canadians something akin to champagne at a wedding or democracy to a totalitarian state. Intoxicating, exciting, personality changing …

This remarkable transformation was first noted in Nagano in 1998, when a comely Canadian woman showed up in the Big Hat Arena wearing a hockey helmet and not much else - two tiny Canadian flags strategically placed over her breasts and a red maple leaf painted over her bare back as she danced and screamed around the stands.

But it was not just seen in the fans. In curling - a sport generally seen as slightly wilder than chess - Canada's Paul Savage dropped his pants to prove to photographers that he did indeed have an Olympic tattoo on his butt.

Not to be outdone, Canadian female curler Joan McCusker quickly deadpanned that this amounted to an illegal reproduction of the sacred Olympic rings and Savage should be properly forewarned that, "They'll sue your ass off."

On a bus heading to the rinks one morning in Nagano, I overheard reporters from Australia and New Zealand complaining about not being able to sleep that night for all the noise the Canadians were making in the media village.

"How do you know they were Canadians?" I asked.

"When they're carrying a big Canadian flag and yelling at Americans to get off," answered the Aussie, "what do you think they'd be?"

It was all true, and true again in Salt Lake City, in Turin and, most of all, in Vancouver and Whistler. The Winter Games - unlike the Summer Games - brings out a strut in Canadians that some find obnoxious, some find charming and many find bewildering and almost … un-Canadian.

It is a time when not only the athletes wear uniforms, but the fans do as well - only theirs are provided by the likes of Roots and Hudson's Bay Co. Poor boy caps in Nagano, tuques in Salt Lake, the Voyageur look in Turin, red mittens everywhere you looked in Vancouver and Whistler. The over-the-top red-and-white paraphernalia, often accompanied by painted faces, is de rigueur during the Games and usually quickly stored away immediately following - sort of like those Mexican hats that seemed a good idea at the time but totally ridiculous the moment you get back home.

Never was the swagger on better display than one year ago in British Columbia. The Games began badly - a death during practice on the luge run, poor weather - and the British Press, which delights on calling Canada "The Great White Waste of Time" was quick to pounce. The Vancouver Games, pronounced The Guardian, were on target to become known as the "worst in Olympic history."

But how quickly matters can change - and weather, as well. From the moment skeleton competitor Jon Montgomery won his gold medal - and was filmed parading through the streets of Whistler with a pitcher of beer - Canada became The Great White-and-Red Good Time.

While the medals were won on the slopes and the rinks, smaller victories came in the streets, with Vancouverites and visitors flooding the downtown daily simply to hang out in a festive atmosphere. Magicians, street hockey games, jugglers were all on hand, but the true magic came from the people who simply came to be there, from young mothers pushing strollers to the elderly who came to stare in amazement at a country they could barely recognize.

In the rinks - curling as well as hockey and figure skating - and on the mountains, it was even wilder, Canadian fans at times a match for the loud and legendary Latvians, who pick up gold medals in fan performance everywhere their beloved teams compete.

There were times when the calls for "CA-NA-DA!" were as loud and jingoistic as the "U.S.A. U.S.A." chants that Canadians have found so offensive in the past, indicative of the so-called Ugly American. Yet Americans, in turn, did not find it at all offensive - but rather charming. "What happened to innocent Canada?" asked Sports Illustrated. "Is it not Whoville any more? Our modest neighbours to the north, once content to feed our cat and pick up our mail while we Americans travelled the globe to kick Olympic ass, have started to sound a lot like us." Even comedian Stephen Colbert, who had been yanking Canada's chain by calling us "iceholes," announced he wished "to take back everything I've said about Canada."

It all brought back memories of a contest run many years back by The New Republic to find the most "boring headline." The winner way back then was "Worthwhile Canadian Initiative."

How remarkably such impressions can change.

By the time the XXI Olympic Winter Games were over, the event could be called nothing but a "worthwhile Canadian initiative."

But it could never be called "boring."

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