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THE WINTER OLYMPICS: IS SPORT TAKING OVER FROM RELIGION? Part 1

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It’s easy to become mesmerized by the well-honed abilities shown at the Olympics. After intense daily coverage the exceptional performance of youthful athletes from around the globe works its magic; even the skeptics find something to be excited about. I admire speed skating and am drawn to figure skating and curling. I followed hockey, enjoying the more graceful, less aggressive play-making on the larger ice.

The emphasis on winning, especially winning gold, can distract from appreciating the events. If we get too parochial about sports we won’t fully appreciate the achievements of all individuals, teams and coaches. That, after all, is the spirit of the Olympics, isn’t it?

All sports require huge commitment but chance and even bias can enter into outcomes. With no defeats, the women curlers under skip Jennifer Jones certainly deserve the gold. But some disquiet remains about skate couple Scott Moir and Tessa Virtue “only” getting the silver. The beauty of ice dancing gets downplayed in the quest to quantify technical feats. It’s not about scoring goals or beating the time of a competitor, as in many Olympic sports. And when half the snow-boarders wipe out in competitions held during a near white-out, it’s hard to accept that the top medal winners were necessarily “the best”. And then there’s undetected doping.

ON WITH THE GAMES

But it’s partly the vulnerability of athletes and the drama of uncertainty that makes the games compelling. Though his Japanese rival had several falls in his last skate, Patrick Chan just couldn’t muster a flawless performance to capture the gold. As one commentator after another said in a tone of disappointment,“the door was open” Chan first apologized to Canada, but after recovering his inner balance he admitted he liked performing more than competing. Don’t we lose something when sport gets treated like a national religion?

Countries too can be fickle. Had Chan become the first Canadian male ice dancer to win gold he’d probably be displayed as a national hero. Perhaps he’d be doing commercials for corporate sponsors. But it didn’t happen, and with the winner take all mentality, silver medalists can be seen as losers. This is very stupid. Had Quebec speed skater Charles Hamelin not fallen twice when he was leading and taken home not one but three medals, he’d probably be a poster athlete.

Speed skater Denny Morrison won silver due to the generosity of a teammate who gave him his spot. Yet after his unexpected victory Morrison tweeted the CBC that “when I wake up from this dream I’m going to be really sad”. I wonder how he felt when the men’s speed skate team he was on failed to defend its gold medal from Vancouver 2010? Perhaps the obsession with winning gold is blinding us to greater personal achievements. During the Sochi Olympics, Silken Laumann released a memoir revealing how much self-loathing she carried while winning rowing medals over three Olympic Games. Treating sports as religion where athletes can be martyred on the altar of victory is not pretty; big-hearted humanity can do much better.

FIXATION ON GOLD

In Vancouver 2010 Canada won 26 medals and topped with 14 gold. The Canadian organizers raised the expectation even higher for Sochi. Own the Podium upped its spending to $89 million to train the 200 plus athletes. Canada ended in third place after Russia and Norway. (Russia by the way hired the same Canadian training consultants that Canada used in 2010.) This time Canada had fewer gold (ten) and one less overall than 2010. So did we fail? Hopefully the ten Canadian athletes who won silver and the five who won bronze won’t feel this way. Hopefully we don’t think that winning hockey gold makes these other wins less significant.

Let’s keep some perspective. Jan Hudec, who unexpectedly won bronze in the alpine race, has undergone seven knee operations since he entered this grueling sport. What will his body be like when he’s my age? It’s worth celebrating that Mark McMorris won bronze for snowboarding with broken ribs. Sarah Burke never competed in the halfpipe skiing she promoted for the Olympics, dying from a training accident in 2012. There is a huge personal cost for these sometimes foolishly dangerous events and I’m not just talking about the record-breaking $52 billion spent for Sochi.

National hype was created around winning even more gold. But greed always has its price. When things were looking bad, and Canada “only” had four gold medals and was in 8th place, the CBC shifted its reporting to total medals rather than gold. One CBC broadcaster even said “there’s only one gold that matters and that’s gold in hockey”. This would not be taken lightly by all the other athletes who put their lives on the line in equally challenging sports. But it does reflect a widespread national view. After winning several gold medals in curling, moguls, bob-sleigh and women’s hockey and Canada moving to 3rd place, the media started highlighting gold again. You wonder if the non-hockey athletes started to think of themselves as means to a higher purpose.

FIXATION ON HOCKEY

The women’s hockey team led by Marie-Philip Poulin grabbed our collective attention when they came from behind to win 3-2 over their U.S. rivals. Meanwhile the men’s team seemed overrated; they just squeezed by Latvia 2-1. The Canadian men were also tested by the Finns, who then went on to humiliate the host-favoured Russians. But then the Finns were defeated by the Swedes who Canada faced in the final after just getting by the U.S. The U.S. was then routed 5-0 by the Finns for the bronze.

And wouldn’t this increasingly level playing field be something to celebrate? Doesn’t it reflect the Olympic spirit? Doesn’t the depth of international hockey make a mockery out of those who treat hockey as a national religion, chanting “Our game, our pride”? It’s presumptuous for any country to think it can “own the podium”. That’s the point of the Olympics.

After the near loss to Latvia the Globe and Mail pointed out the economic irony. The NHL salaries for all the Canadian team members totalled over $150 million while it was well below $1 million for Latvia. The Latvian goalie that stopped 55 shots to 16 going the other way wasn’t even on an NHL team, though that will likely change.

What if Canada had lost the gold to Sweden, who had to play without three of their top-scorers? Would our national identity be fundamentally challenged even though we did so well in other areas and would still have ended up in 3rd place? Why not equally celebrate the women’s hockey victory, after losing four times to the U.S. in world titles? Let’s not forget that female athletes got most of the gold medals in Sochi compared to getting one-third of them in Vancouver. Isn’t getting more equality into sports more fundamental to our collective identity than just winning hockey gold? Or is hockey really our national religion?

VIEW OF SPORTS

There’s really nothing wrong with being fair-minded, “nice” Canadians. And what’s wrong with also seeing Canada as a curling country, for this is the first time ever that women and men from Canada both won gold. We are known for our great figure skating heritage, so why not continue to celebrate Chan, Virtue and Moir for the beauty they brought to the world? Wouldn’t the beauty and exceptional athleticism of the Russian ballet and circus performers during Sochi’s closing ceremony also stir the awe of the most medaled Olympic athletes?

I was struck when after winning gold, men’s curling skip Brad Jacobs encouraged others to take up this sport because it was a good way to “learn about one’s self”. He repeated this; there was no macho hype about winning gold. This was in great contrast to the advice that Don Cherry predictably dished out to millions of Canadians up early to watch the gold hockey game, saying “hit them right off the bat…crash the net”. Thanks for that Don, but there’s no doubt which view of sports deserves a medal for inspiring the next generation of athletes.

R-Town #218 Feb 28, 2014

Next time I’ll look at how sports may actually be replacing religion.

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