The Gretzky Olympics?

TURIN -- The words say one thing. The body language tells another story entirely.

Here sit the talking heads of the Canadian Olympic Committee on the morning of the first Olympic night, claiming they welcome Wayne Gretzky's arrival in Turin, looking about as comfortable as Mark McGwire testifying before Congress.

They are mumbling all the politically correct things because, frankly, what else are they going to say?

They are saying it through bitten lips and clenched teeth and with words so carefully chosen, they sound as though they were crafted by John Ferguson Jr. They are answering question after question, hoping the questions and those asking them will go away. Or at least shift their focus.

Welcome to the Gretzky Olympics. Like it or not, that's what they have become. He has yet to arrive but his story is omnipresent. Everyone is talking about it, whispering about it, wondering about it.

The story has nothing and everything to do with the Olympics and in the broader picture of the COC, that is indeed the problem.

Today begins what should be the most successful Winter Olympics in Canadian history. That should be the focus after the opening ceremony. That should be the talk.

That is what the COC was pleading for yesterday. Normally, you hear them trying to spin their way out of Canadian athletic disasters. That's what these little gatherings tend to be about. But here, they were simply trying yesterday to get someone, anyone, to pay attention to their athletes.

What they weren't saying -- but clearly feeling -- is they wish Wayne Gretzky and his headlines would go away and stop spoiling their party.

What they weren't saying -- but clearly feeling -- is they wish they could convince Gretzky to stay home but they're not about to play that card.

What they were saying, officially, is they wish the focus would return to their athletes, the athletes they're so damn proud of.

Today, Jennifer Heil of Spruce Grove, Alta., should become the first Canadian medal winner at the Games. This is her time. Moguls skiing is her event.

By tomorrow, it could be Beckie Scott on the podium at cross country, maybe Cindy Klassen at speed skating, maybe Mathieu Turcotte, the short-track speed skater. There are that many possibilities on the first weekend of the Games.

Four medals by Monday isn't out of the question. Tuesday, Gretzky arrives with Team Canada. Tuesday, the winter heat gets turned up.

And somehow lost in all this is the great charm of the Winter Olympics - which is not just a hockey tournament. This has forever been an event about celebrating athletes we don't know and getting passionate about sports we don't necessarily follow.

It's a tough sell at times, certainly between Olympics. But when the attention goes elsewhere, to a professional who is neither coach nor player here, to a world-renowned name who is peripherally attached to a crime investigation in the U.S., somehow the event and the accomplishment gets unintentionally minimized in the public's mind.

That is a flaw of the modern messenger and the expanse of what has has become mainstream media.

The minimization happened, in Seoul, to Lennox Lewis, who was historical in winning heavyweight gold in boxing. The accomplishment was both startling and embittering. He won gold after Ben Johnson tested positive for performance enhancing drugs. His feat was lessened by a story that had nothing to do with him.

Nobody treated him like a hero. Nobody celebrated the victory the way it should have been celebrated.

And Lewis never looked at Canada the same way again.

This is probably something Wayne Gretzky can't comprehend from Phoenix, can't completely feel not being here, as he is so engrossed in his hockey world. His whole life, he has been the centre of attention. Now, for the wrong reasons, that takes on a new meaning.

His arrival on Tuesday won't simply be a distraction to a Canadian hockey team, it will be a distraction to the Canadian team at large and to the Olympic Games.

This will become an event more about him than than hockey. This Olympic hockey team already was a gamble of sorts. This wasn't the kind of gamble anyone else had in mind.