July 19, 1996
EMBRACING THE MOMENT
By CHRISTIE BLATCHFORD
ATLANTA -- Whatever sprinter Donovan Bailey did or didn't say about Canada in his recent state-of-the-nation address to Sports Illustrated, he gave us reason to think about our country, and to wonder if it is the fair and fine place most of us imagine it to be.
His comments, at least as they were originally reported and perhaps as they were originally said, probably made most Canadians angry, a little sad, and furiously reflective: Are we really so bad? Is it really so awful?
Here, in the American South, where racism was if not invented certainly honed to a special evil edge, a group of young Canadians gathered yesterday and showed the other, brighter side to the dark face of the Bailey coin.
The Canadian Olympic team may be still predominantly white and blonde, as is Canada still outside of its largest urban areas, but it is nonetheless reflective of the country's changing reality and of the national ability to adapt. A former Hamilton city shotput champion - this is Sheila Copps, the deputy prime minister and the minister responsible for culture and sport; it's the nature of Olympics that anyone remotely near the action, politicians included, is moved to lay claim to having once played a game well - remarked upon this yesterday.
"This is a team of Canadians," she said, "Canadians born in 24 different countries of the world."
That is an astonishing statistic because it means that those young people, born elsewhere, were sufficiently unencumbered by racism and lack of opportunity in their adopted land that they were able to make the truly Olympian leap from new immigrant to great shining success not within a generation or two, as used to be the expectation, but within their own lifetimes. This speaks most well of course about the athletes themselves, who undoubtedly worked like dogs (but when has that ever been a problem with new immigrants?), but also of Canada and those born Canadian.
Yesterday, one of each, a born Canuck and an immigrant one, both of them black, were centre stage.
Sylvia Sweeney, a former basketball star with the Canadian Olympic team and now the assistant chef de mission for Team Canada '96, is also the executive producer of Salute to the Athletes!, a joint CBC-Canadian Olympic Association production which will be televised across the country tonight. It's the first time the usually private ceremony honoring our athletes on the eve of the Games and announcing the flag-bearer will be made public; it loses none of its emotional impact.
The show is imbued with Sweeney's vision, and she wants it to provoke pride and patriotism. "What does this flag mean to you? What does it mean to be a Canadian?" This is a time in our history, she said, when "all Canadians have to stand up." Switching easily from French to English and back again, she talked of how "we're inundated by the wrong messages" and rattled off a handful of the current Nike slogans, among them, "You don't win silver, You lose gold," and said athletes "need to hear that their efforts are rewarded, that as Olympians they are our role models."
The filming, spread out over three hours, a power blackout and all the normal miscues, will be condensed into a tight hour of TV. Unusually, everyone involved - from Copps to the performers, all of whom donated their services, to the bureaucrats - remembered to demur to the athletes, who sat patiently in their seats in the theatre of a posh Atlanta private school, and did all the right things, as they invariably do.
When a half-dozen former Canadian flag-bearers, including 86-year-old George Maughan, who carried the flag in 1932, came onto the stage, the approximately 200 Canadian athletes in the room rose immediately to their feet; when singer Celine Dion, grave-faced and serious in her Canadian team jacket, told them her "only advice is to embrace the moment, to put your arms around every second", they listened raptly; when the start of the show was delayed, leaving an Atlanta gospel choir stranded on stage, the athletes demanded they sing and sing they did, a wonderful hymn whose joyous chorus was, "In that great, getting-up morning, fare thee well!"
And when 800-metre specialist Charmaine Crooks - a five-time Olympian and one of those all-round sterling citizens who even in high school was an exceptional human being, volunteering to go to Africa to work - was named as the flag-bearer, and promptly burst into tears, her teammates responded with hoots of delight and a standing, shrieking ovation.
Crooks is 33. She was born in Mandeville, Jamaica, but as she stood there, before her peerless peers yesterday, wiping tears from her face, she carried a Canadian flag in her hand, and afterwards, completely overwhelmed, she could speak only in gasps about how honored she felt.
Earlier, in the crowd, Liz Brown of Niagara Falls, here with her husband Rooney after winning an Olympic Spirit contest at the Home Depot where she works, had taken a long look around the room, and said, her nice face close to crumbling from emotion, "It makes you wear your heart on your sleeve, just to be amongst them."
It does that, and in that great getting-up morning tomorrow, when the Games begin, may they all fare well, and embrace the moment, and be proud, if just for this short time, of their country.