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Modest ambitions

What the Olympics show us about the Canadian personality crisis

In the week before the Olympic opening ceremonies, the cultural realities of the Vancouver Games were neatly captured for me, as a Canadian, by two pieces of exceptionally bad writing. The first – and by far the more enjoyable – appeared in the Guardian, one of the U.K.’s most progressive and prestigious newspapers.

In an altruistic act of pedagogy, the British journalists had taken it upon to themselves to explain to their readers what, exactly, the winter Olympics are. The concise, comprehensive guidebook they produced managed to blow apart any straggling illusions I had about Canada’s international visibility.

The vast majority of winter sports, it turns out, the ones I’ve played or watched all my life, are stupidly dangerous and best avoided – as, in the majority of cases, the British athletic world has wisely done. Others just didn’t appeal to the quaint sensibilities of British cricket fans, and were left to the lumpen masses – “uber-sized Dutch men and women.” My favourite, though, was the scandalized three sentences derived from the British experience of watching hockey, and I provide them here in full:
“Quite possibly the most pointless sport ever to be televised as it is impossible to follow the puck unless the action is shown in slow motion. Possibly worth watching for the frequent fights but you’ll have to take the score on trust. Not that you will care because Great Britain hasn’t entered a team in either the men’s or women’s competitions.”

And that’s that.

The second article ran in another prestigious publication, the New York Times. It was written by an old staffer who happens to be the leader of the opposition in Canadian Parliament right now – Michael Ignatieff.

Ignatieff’s vision of the Vancouver Olympics made the Games seem like a church bake sale. Nice, but nothing too fancy. “We Canadians are immensely proud of our country,” Ignatieff wrote, “but we try to be soft-spoken about it, so we aren’t looking for the Vancouver Games to be a grandiose exercise in self-promotion.” Apparently, the goal of the Games is to send the bizarre message that “we’re a people the world can count on…. Ask us to do a job, and we get it done right.”

Behind all the obsequious stereotypes of Canadian modesty, however, Ignatieff’s article was haunted by the enormous apathy, exemplified by the Guardian’s coverage, with which most of the world treats the Winter Olympic Games. Only 82 countries are competing this year, compared to the 204 entered in the Beijing Summer Games, and though we blew the budget, a Winter Olympics is only worth $6 billion, $34 billion less than Beijing.

Nobody likes to mention it, but this is a real source of anxiety here. The Winter Olympics hold a particular resonance in Canada, in that they exhibit Canada’s sole uniting cultural characteristic – our nordicity. No matter where you were born or how long you’ve lived here, every Canadian experiences winter. Even if you’re from the rainforest coasts of B.C., you’re surrounded by snow-capped mountains. So it makes sense that we care.

But it makes equal sense that they’re not a big deal in most places. A lot of countries simply don’t have snow and ice. The fact that the Summer Games are viewed as the “real” Olympics by most shouldn’t matter to us. Nordicity remains a fact of our existence, and winter sports will always be popular here.

And yet even during this so very Canadian event, we seem to find ourselves, as always, turning southward, begging for American validation. Our politicians write op-eds no one will read in American papers. We launch the fascistic “Own the Podium” campaign, and it backfires – Canada has half the medal count of the front runners, and the sparse international media attention being paid to the Games is now solely focused on the program’s unfairness and fatal disregard for safety.

And then there are the opening ceremonies, which were, well, weird. Ask Canada to define itself, and we freak out. Satan charges fiddling across the stage in a canoe. k.d. lang weeps as she butchers “Hallelujah” to bits. And a country confronts the fact that after more than a century of trying, all we have for a self-image is a confusing caricature.

In a way Ignatieff would never have intended, the Vancouver Games have really been the perfect mirror to hold up to Canadian society. Canada’s unique nordicity is present, yes, but so is our usually-hidden desire to be American, to make the world notice us. Our media has been all over our alleged modesty, but the less cute parts of Canada’s culture – our bigotry toward the First Nations, our hatred of the homeless, and our lack of investment in real, progressive urban planning – have also been drawn out and magnified for all to see.

The Olympics have turned into a battle between the way we would like to sell ourselves and the way we are. On February 13, the Times ran an article praising Canada for being a place where everybody goes home at midnight after the opening ceremonies. That morning, a black bloc of more than 200 protesters marched into downtown Vancouver and smashed store windows displaying Olympic clothing before engaging in a violent battle with the police. No one told them anger isn’t Canadian, I guess.

The image of Canada as modest and self-aware seems like a nice idea. But if that national image really matched our identity, maybe we would have invested in solving the problems of the homeless in Vancouver, rather than pushing them out and spending a billion dollars on security. Instead of just using native imagery to brand the Games, we could have taken a good, hard look at the fact that the entire province where all the hubbub is happening lies on Native land that was never ceded. And we could wonder what happened that made a country with such an enormous population of visible minorities send a team to the Games that is almost exclusively white.

As a Canadian, I’m fine with the fact that the Winter Olympics will never truly catch the world’s attention – with years of experience, I’ve developed the marvellous ability to follow a hockey puck, and I enjoy doing it. Northern countries like Canada will always be somewhat alone in our northernness, and perhaps that’s part of the appeal. But at some point, we have to stop worrying how much the world knows about us, and begin to question what we think we know about ourselves.