Nation building

TURIN -- And so we open another Olympic book, with the pages so fresh and unbent, the stories waiting to be revealed.

About athletes we don't necessarily know. Games we don't necessarily care about. About a passion -- far from the slogan -- that does, in fact, unite us.

This, after all the scandals, after all the misspent money, after all the performance enhancing drugs, after all the cheaters, remains the charm and the power of an Olympic Games.

Like the best of novels, it is self-contained. You know when it begins. You know when it ends. You just don't know which twists and turns it will take over the 17 days in Turin, Italy.

But we watch. We always watch.

I don't know how old I was when the Olympics first bit me but I know it was as a kid. Maybe it was watching Mexico City in 1968 or Sapporo in 1972, all of that solidified by the Montreal Olympics four years later. That was thirty years ago.

Now I'm here at my 11th Olympics in this privileged capacity of having the best seat in the house, with every one of the Games different, the food, the tastes, the smells, the attitudes, the city, the performances, the stories, but the feeling doesn't change.

There is nothing else like it in sport.

There is nothing that brings some of the highest-and-lowest paid athletes in the world together from some of the richest and poorest countries. Together and apart. The great Olympic dichotomy. The thinking always has been that the Olympics bring people closer together.

My view has been the opposite. The Olympics separates and compartmentalizes countries and attitudes and beliefs and finances on a greater scale than almost anything else. It isn't about bringing countries together if in fact it ever was: In our case, it's about bringing our own country together.

Go back to a Sunday afternoon four years ago and see what you remember. When the streets were basically deserted, the stores empty, the microwaves popping popcorn: Canada was playing in the gold medal hockey game, hoping to end an unexplainable 50-year-drought.

It became the most-watched television show in Canadian history, the gold medal win. A people, forever fractured by language, by economic diversity, by a political system that serves only the glad-handers, divided by geography, were not fractured that afternoon and evening.

That was a day when everybody was Canadian: The power of the Olympic victory in full display.

And now it begins again, a professional hockey tournament wrapped around luge and skeleton and biathlon and short track speed skating. The sport we live for and the many sports we could live without.

It's all part of the package in a Winter Olympics, where not all medals and all events are created equal. The Canadian women's hockey team, playing in a sport without a field, will play for either silver or gold without any real competition evident aside from the Americans. That's a given.

On the men's side of hockey, nothing can be assumed. Russia has Alexander Ovechkin and Ilya Kovalchuk. The Czech Republic has Dominik Hasek and Tomas Voukoun. The Swedes have Nik Lidstrom and Mats Sundin and Henrik Lundqvist.

The women get a gold or silver by acclamation. The men may win either or neither -- the field is that deep and that difficult.

It's the same sport, same medals, same stage but nothing else is the same. Part of the many inequites of the Olympic Games.

The Canadian mood over the next few weeks will begin and end as it always does during Winter Games, with the temperature being measured by the success of the men's hockey team. We begin and end with hockey.

That's who we are.

In between, we wait for speed skater Cindy Klassen, for cross country skier Beckie Scott, for moguls skier Jennifer Heil, for skeleton rider Mellisa Hollingsworth for those to fill the pages of our book with stories of triumph and tragedy and almost everything in between.

It is time to open the book, time to let the pages unfold. Time for the 20th Winter Olympics, 50 years after Italy first hosted the Games, to begin. Enjoy the ride.