Ex-Olympians rewarded, finally

ALISON KORN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:43 AM ET

VANCOUVER -- Olympic snub this, Olympic snub that.

It's becoming uninspiring to read about past Olympic champions complaining about not being offered any role for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics -- from sprinter Donovan Bailey to downhill skier Kerrin Lee-Gartner.

There's something not so gracious that comes off in their comments, wonderful as these folks may be in person. Nobody is owed free tickets or access. If you're not here in a useful capacity, take care of yourself.

Sure, it would have been sweet if VANOC had set aside ample tickets for all Canadian Olympians, allowing us to buy them without going through the lottery system, which was a bit of an indignity. Well, that opportunity finally came last week, from the Canadian Olympic Committee, in an email offering athletes several avenues to buy last-minute tickets.

As the COC reminded us, it also coordinated over 325 Olympians to run with the torch across the country -- but out of the total 12,000 torchbearers, that number was an embarrassingly tiny portion. Over and over, I've talked to athletes, many of them medallists, who applied to run with the torch and never heard back.

But by this week, these disappointments didn't matter as much to the 250 former athletes who marched as "athlete stand ins" in the opening ceremony dress rehearsal on Wednesday. Billed as the opportunity of a lifetime, the free sneak peek was offered to all of Canada's Olympians. We pounced on it. Got ourselves here on our own dime, showed ID to get the exclusive ticket and lined up at Canada Hockey Place.

It says something about the spirit all Olympians share when many of these aging stars dusted off their national team jackets to wear for the evening. Seoul 1988, Grenoble 1968 and Atlanta 1996 were just some of the ensembles spotted. Together, we formed a walking museum.

I was assigned to march in with Slovakia. Our team leader was a young VANOC volunteer in the powder blue fleece jacket, a guy who immigrated to Canada from Sarajevo in 1995. Hopping with excitement, he said he spoke seven languages, is finishing his degree at the University of British Columbia, and is aiming for medical school.

For close to two hours, we waited in the stands in the hockey arena, until our country's turn came to leave the building and walk over to the adjacent BC Place stadium. There, our line snaked inside the bowels of the building for another hour or more -- with no food or drink. (This is why the opening ceremonies are so exhausting for athletes. Our legs were killing us and we had to pee.)

Finally, we were up and our team of about 10 -- made mostly up of Canadian rowers -- marched in to the stadium behind the Slovak flag, chanting a few choice phrases our volunteer taught us.

FROM THE HEAVENS

We're not allowed to divulge anything about the ceremony, so I won't. Suffice to say, wow! Things and people descended from the heavens, and sailed back up.

The seasons, the cultures, the songwriters of Canada all had a gorgeous prominence -- and there was even some token French.

Not surprisingly, the final torchbearer did not appear. So here's my guess: Ice hockey hero Wayne Gretzky and speedskating icon Gaetan Boucher, together. This combination would have the English/French thing covered, plus the pro/amateur intermixing, which represents the modern Olympics.

All that's missing would be an aboriginal and a woman -- but you can't win 'em all. Or maybe you can. Will it be a classic Canadian compromise, a gang of them up there to satisfy everyone, or just Wayne?

We'll know tonight.

ALISON_KORN@HOTMAIL.COM


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