America wins medals, Canada wins hearts
So, how do you like the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver so far?
If you’re an American, quite a bit, thank you very much.
If you’re one of the NBC sportcasters here, you like it even more, because now you’ve got an almost legitimate excuse to talk about practically nothing but Americans.
If you’re Canada, the host nation, probably not so much, for obvious and not-so-obvious reasons. If you’re from Russia, even less. You and your president are mad as hell about it all.
This has been an unexpectedly dizzying and surprising winter Olympics, at turns exposing everything that’s right and everything that’s wrong with these every-four-years efforts. If nothing else, we’ve seen a couple different sides to the host nation, for better and worse.
That image of the Canadians as bland, modest, mild-mannered folks who are patient and have things in perspective and proportion, well, that one took a small hit. They are as crazed about gold as anybody else, and carry as much bellowing national pride as the next country, which happens to be their too-good neighbor, the United States.
The Canadians, in their efforts to create a really fast luge and bobsled competition, created a course that athletes and experts complained was way too fast. It certainly proved to be too fast for a young luge competitor from Georgia who was killed when he lost control at somewhere around 90 miles an hour.
That tragedy, right before the start of the games, was a huge controversy with charges, tortured explanations, and countercharges in the midst of competition. It’s not being talked about too much any more, except perhaps in the Georgian village where they’re still mourning the loss of their hometown athlete.
The Canadians, who should be good in these events because there’s lots of ice, mountains, and snow there — as opposed to Washington — haven’t fared well. Last two times they hosted the winter Olympics they got no gold. They finally broke the spell this time, but then the United States — with most of their NHL stars playing for Russia, Sweden and Canada — managed to knock off the Sidney Crosby-led Canadian team, a huge upset.
The Russian hockey team, with Alex Ovechkin at the helm, lost to Slovakia. Russia was shut out in the medals for pairs skating, where China finished first and second, and when defending gold medalist Evgeni Plushenko, a boyish Putin look-alike in sequins, lost the gold to American Evan Lysacek in men‘s figure skating, he got peevish. He waltzed up to the gold podium at the medals ceremony then, after some comments about skaters who don’t do a quadruple jump not being manly, he walked out. Russian President Putin and his wife also complained about the loss.
And then there was our country ’tis of thee. Even if the Americans don’t win another medal, they’ve kicked butt. This would be really wonderful to behold if we didn’t have to listen to the various broadcasters point out the obvious to us, instead of letting us enjoy it.
This, in spite of the fact that this has not turned out to be the Vonncouver Olympics.
We’ve seen too much of the golden girl, in both senses of the word: her hurt shin, her pained grimaces, her bikini poses, her personal life, her long hair, all of that. She won a gold in the downhill and flashed her gutsy brilliance, fell in another race, and raced conservatively in the super-G for a bronze. Not bad at all, but just modest enough to let others shine.
Others won big also, with Shani Davis taking gold and silver in speed skating, Julia Mancuso winning two silvers and Apolo Ohno setting a record for Olympic medals with short track skating.
Then there’s Bode Miller. Remember him? Like Vonn, Miller was the hyped American athlete in Torino and crumbled like a cookie, with no medals. Here, he’s been about as good as he can get, getting a bronze, silver and gold so far, and a lot less attention, while looking like the scruffy skier Robert Redford might have played once.
Finally, there’s Shaun White, the red-headed snowboarder in a class by himself. I think I saw him working his way to the moon after one of his runs. Confident without being arrogant, articulate, shrewd and funny, he’s the coolest guy in Vancouver.
Canada has enjoyed a few victories, though. The gold medal win by dark-horse moguls skier Alex Bilodeau, the country’s first in a Winter Olympics, prompted a fire of excitement nationwide. More touching was seeing Bilodeau’s older brother Frederic, who has cerebral palsy, weep with joy when the results were announced.
One of the great things about watching ski runs is to see how the Vancouver’s mountain setting revealed itself every time. It was breath-taking. And there’s the city itself, gleamingly hip and cosmopolitan against a backdrop of fierce nature. Even if Canadian athletes aren’t sweeping the podiums, the country has the shown the world a remarkable culture full of natural beauty and modern elan. Now there’s something to be proud about.
Plus, we got to see fiddle players who could tap dance. What more could you want?