Looking back on a Games divided

By STEVE SIMMONS, QMI Agency

VANCOUVER — The face of the Vancouver Olympics was not of any one athlete or any one event but of a Canadian, all dressed in red, dancing and celebrating, with a flag stencilled just below the eyes.

The voice of the Olympics was heard on the streets, in the bars, everywhere you looked. It wasn’t any one face or any one voice: It was thousands of them. Everywhere you turned. Lining up for anything and everything. Whooping, hollering, randomly screaming Ca-na-da.

These were the Olympic saviours, breathing life into a Games that stumbled terribly off the start, yet somehow found its way. The people of British Columbia, the people of Canada, took ownership of these Games. This has never happened before. Not anywhere. Not at any Olympics.

This was an Olympics by the people, for the people, and a city known for its laid-back nature came out to play for the warmest and maybe weirdest Winter Olympics ever. And when we say goodbye to the world Sunday night, we’ll be happy to be going home, yet sad that it ended this soon.

“They told me this would never happen,” said John Furlong, the man behind the Games. “They told me this city would never engage the way we saw them engage. I am humbled by all that I’ve seen.”

It was Vancouver. It was Canada. It was a city and country not known for patriotism behaving at its patriotic best.

Furlong’s vision proved to be clear. He spoke for most of the years leading up to the Games about engaging young Canadians. He spoke about this being a national event, not a local one. And with the television ratings of the Olympics smashing records on a daily basis, culminating with Sunday’s gold-medal hockey game, it is clear that Canadians at home, and Canadians here in Vancouver, were engaged by the 17 days of the Games.

It wasn’t just the high-profile events: 7.8 million Canadians watched aerials on TV. That kills the Super Bowl or the Academy Awards in numbers. That, as much as anything, proved the power of these Olympic Games.

A Games that was both compelling but flawed, troubled yet moving. These were, in many ways, a Games of contradiction. In Vancouver, there was a Winter Olympics, just no winter. The only snow in the city was man-made. That didn’t kill the atmosphere, but it changed it. The medal ceremonies were indoors — a mistake, I believe — but it didn’t dull the spirits of those determined to turn this into the great Canadian party.

It just altered the landscape.

And the other half of the Olympics, with these Games divided, took place up at Whistler. For the first time ever, there seemed no connection between the city that housed the Games and the Mountain town where the snow events took place.

No Winter Games has ever been this divided and the disconnect was felt by athletes, tourists, anyone hoping to be part of the landscape.

But in the end, still, this is an athletic event, an event that is supposed to bring countries together but really does quite the opposite: It separates and identifies the differences of nations.

On Sunday, Canada stopped for a hockey game. In Norway, there is celebration over Marit Bjoergen, only one of two triple gold medallists at these Games. She and Wang Meng of China were the most successful athletes here.

We hardly know them, nor care much about them. The athletes of the world come together, the countries do not.

But every Olympics has its own feel, its own taste, its own triumph and tragedies. Before the Games even began, there was the horrific crash that killed a luger from Georgia and left questions about the safety of the course unanswered.

“The most upsetting day of my life,” Furlong would call it later. It took days for the Games to find some momentum after that terrible beginning.

But somehow it did sprint to the finish line — with an array of Canadian golds and the real gold medal of the Games going to those who made each venue more alive than the next.

“I’ve never seen fans like this before,” said the Brit, Sebastian Coe.

And we’ve never seen moments like these.

Who can forget the first night of skating for Joannie Rochette?

This is a story I will tell people the rest of my life. How she came to the Olympics and how her mother died without warning. How she found a way to fight back tears, somehow found the strength to go on the ice at Pacific Coliseum to skate her short program, how she was flawless and how she fell into her coach’s arms, almost collapsing when it was over.

I will hear the sound in the building as long as I am alive. I will remember her face and her tears and I suspect any Canadian watching will remember them, too.

These golden Games for Canada will be remembered for Alex Bilodeau’s maiden victory, for the comebacks of Charles Hamelin and Denny Morrison, for the dominant Canadian woman, the ridiculous controversy over women’s hockey celebrations, the introduction to Jon Montgomery, the brilliant men’s hockey tournament, for gold won and lost on the curling ice, and for an unforgettable double-silver medallist, the happiest and most-excited of all Canadian faces here.

Her name is Marianne St-Gelais, and almost no one would have known before the Games. But no one stood on the podium with more Canadian pride, more excited by her accomplishment. And then her boyfriend, Hamelin, brought home two gold medals.

I won’t forget Rochette’s tears and St-Gelais’ smile. A great Games of contradiction.

The most compelling athlete I met here was Brian McKeever, the blind cross-country skier who didn’t get to compete. That was wrong and unfair and put a damper on the last two days of Vancouver while all of Canada celebrated.

Celebration and sadness, the most successful of Olympics, divided in two.

steve.simmons@sunmedia.ca

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