Tuesday, March 2, 2010

New Patriot Love (by Stephen Brunt from The Globe and Mail)

I am posting this today, because when I heard Stephen Brunt read it on CTV, I thought it was brilliant. And I cried. Because being at the epicentre of those winter games had such a powerful impact on so many people - it's inexplicable. This appeared in the Globe and Mail. And Stephen Brunt sums it up so beautifully, putting thoughts and feelings into words. These words.

By Stephen Brunt, The Globe and Mail Posted Friday, February 26, 2010 2:22 PM ET

"Perhaps we are really looking into a funhouse mirror, and the country reflected back to us, bold and loud and overtly patriotic, is a thing only of this time and place. Perhaps from here at ground zero, surrounded by the happy, face-painted Maple Leaf-bedecked mobs, perspective is skewed.

But it certainly seems as though something new and different has been happening in Canada these past two weeks - at the very least, a sudden loss of national self-consciousness.

A home-country Olympics has been the catalyst, and everyone knew it was coming, like Expo 67, or the previous two Games held in Canada, or the various international hockey triumphs that provided obvious opportunities to wave the flag.

Not this many flags, though, or this many choruses of O Canada, in its many permutations, from homemade and homely to hip hop. And most remarkable of all is that, for all of the preparation, and all of the packaged, premeditated tugging of heartstrings, this hasn't really proceeded according to script.

It was supposed to be a simple, inevitable march to glory. Enormous amounts of money (at least in Canadian terms) were invested in our athletes to guarantee that what had happened before - gold-medal-free Olympics in Montreal in 1976 and Calgary in 1988 - would not happen again. Success would not be a faint hope, it would be an expectation. We would own the podium, we would top the medal tables. Though it might seem antithetical to traditional notions of the national character, the overt confidence, the swagger of those newborn champions would set a tone for the country. As they witnessed triumph upon triumph, at each raising of the flag and singing of the anthem, as they witnessed other countries - especially the United States of America - left trembling in our wake, citizens would be suitably inspired, emboldened in their own lives, feel moved to hit new heights, feel kindly toward the government of the day (the propaganda possibilities of this exercise have been obvious at least since 1936), and not question for a minute the wisdom of the entire Olympic enterprise.

That was the narrative arc everyone anticipated, not just sports and Olympic administrators, but also those in control of the massive media consortium, which paid an unprecedented amount for the rights to the Games and was betting heavily on being able to wallow in Canadian success.

Instead, the show got off to an unequivocally awful start. Hours before the cauldron was lit, a luger was killed during a practice run, raising questions about the safety of the state-of-the-art track built specifically for these Olympics. A technical glitch marred the climactic moment of the Opening Ceremony, and freakishly warm weather threatened to melt the Cypress Mountain venue, forcing cancellations and eventually mass ticket refunds. The much-hyped Canadian hope for a home gold medal fell short on the opening day of competition, and the opportunistic overseas press corps focused in on every glitch, pronouncing the Vancouver-Whistler Olympics a failure and an embarrassment to the host country even before they had really begun.

It would have been no surprise in those circumstances for the country to curl up in the fetal position, to experience a great national cringe: We weren't good enough; in the big moment, we hadn't come through; we weren't up to the task; we should never have become involved (or spent the money) in the first place.

What happened instead were the streets of Vancouver filling with huge crowds, young, pan-ethnic, the very image of the place, decked out in national colours, patriotic gear the fashion statement of the moment, and that became the story. From across the country came reports of other gatherings, more modest naturally, and then the first television numbers, showing that unprecedented numbers of Canadians were tuning in. (And the changed medium itself was also part of the equation - the immersive effect of having everything from the Games available at all times on multiple platforms; watching hour after hour of the Olympics, following sports that otherwise aren't exactly top of mind, has always had a narcotic effect, but this time it was possible to inhabit virtual-Olympic-world 24 hours a day.)

Apparently, it wasn't all about flawless execution and it wasn't all about winning medals and it wasn't even all about sport. It was about providing an opportunity, a platform, an excuse, to let loose pent-up feelings of national pride, to express, without apology, with a spirit of joy, a national identity, hitting emotional notes beyond the usual touchstones of climate and geography, of politeness, tolerance, universal health care and hockey. It was fun (especially for those too young to have experienced the epiphany of the Canada-Soviet hockey series, 1972 - or even the Ben Johnson run of 1988) and it was liberating and it felt good, the power of collectively giving a damn.

By the time moguls skier Alexandre Bilodeau won that first Canadian gold medal in Canada, in so many ways the perfect poster boy for everything the Games are supposed to be about, it was becoming clear that the country outside the Olympic bubble was setting the tone, and not vice versa. During those distressing moments mid-Games when it began to dawn on everyone that the Own the Podium goals could not be reached, when several Canadian athletes seemed to buckle under the intense pressure, bureaucrats and reporters were busy counting up the medals and fretting over whether it was really a good idea to shoot so high, while outside the flag-waving proceeded unabated.

It wasn't until skeleton athlete Jon Montgomery's victory a week ago last Friday (following immediately on the heels of fellow slider Melissa Hollingsworth's teary disappointment, which was the Games' athletic nadir from a Canadian point of view), and his triumphant stroll through the streets of Whistler, grabbing a pitcher of beer along the way, that the Olympics caught up with the mood of the country. Then came Thursday, with four medals won and the one-sided hockey victory over Russia, and the stage was set for a weekend like no other.

Come Monday morning, come the weeks and months and years after that, who knows if there will even be a hint left behind of what has happened here beyond a short hangover? Whether all of those jerseys and flags and maple leaf hats will gather dust in some closet, like artifacts of a graduation, of a wedding, other signpost moments that are over, and gone.

Public displays of patriotism would seem unlikely to become the norm. But given the opportunity, given the excuse, who would be surprised now if this happens again? The want seems to be there, the need seems to be there, and maybe it has been there percolating all along - the desire to join together and celebrate ourselves, to be a tribe."

Thank you Stephen Brunt. You have put into words this amazing feeling that's been resonating on the streets of Vancouver for the past 2 weeks.

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