First, this admission: I was wrong.
Let’s back up. In 2003, there was a referendum in the city of Vancouver asking, “Do you support or do you oppose the City of Vancouver’s participation in hosting the 2010 Olympic Winter Games and Paralympic Winter Games?” Approximately half of the city turned out to vote, and 64 per cent of Vancouverites were in favour. I was one of the people who voted yes. I hoped it would result in an improvement in the transit system, and that it would force the various levels of government to do something lasting and productive in the Downtown Eastside, Canada’s poorest and most addicted neighbourhood. Plus, the idea of a hockey gold on home soil was irresistible.
In the intervening seven years, I slowly became less and less enthusiastic. A magnificent SkyTrain line did get built from the airport to downtown, and a few other much-needed improvements were made, but absolutely nothing was done in the Downtown Eastside, and the cadre responsible for the Games’ organization, VANOC, behaved in a seemingly inept and callous way toward those who disagreed with them, and the citizens of the city in general.
Perhaps the most representative incident was VANOC’s use of a clip from Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl’s film Olympia in its torch-relay promotional video. In the original film, the torch triumphantly enters into a stadium to a crowd of “Heil Hitler” salutes. In VANOC’s version, the salutes have been obscured, as though that solves the problem. It’s hard not to feel deceived when someone’s literally using Nazi propaganda on you.
As the Games drew near, the mood of the city was mixed at best. Some were excited. Many people decided to leave town. Others were simply annoyed. A great many people’s feelings would be best described as apocolympic. No one knew quite what would happen, or how any of it might take place, but the sense that something catastrophic was about to take place was palpable.
I place the blame for this feeling squarely on the shoulders of VANOC. They may have done a lot of work to capture the hearts and minds of corporate sponsors and the political elite, but they failed miserably to excite the citizens of Vancouver.
But you remember, perhaps, that I was wrong?
I left the city for a brief trip the day of the opening ceremonies. I left with no great regret, only mild irritation at increased airport traffic. The city was still very much divided. I had never once seen a piece of red Olympic gear on the streets of Vancouver. Maybe a Canada jersey at a Canucks game, but no scarves, no mittens, no jackets.
That night, however, as I sat in a bar in Yellowknife with a schoolteacher from Newfoundland, a strange thing happened. Everyone, and I mean everyone, was glued to the TV as Gretzky was trucked down to the water. As I watched the citizens of my city stream out of their apartments into the pouring rain to run alongside the torch, in no way obstructed by the imposing presence of a billion-dollar security force larger than our troop presence in Afghanistan, I thought to myself, “I want to be home right now. I want to be a part of this.”
When I returned home two days later, the city had changed completely. I have never in my life seen people so excited, so happy, so in love with the feeling of being part of something they don’t understand their love for. I’m sure everyone’s seen the shots of the crowds. The downtown core was packed all day, every day, a sea of red. But I’ve been in huge crowds before, and they’ve never been like this. The people there were a people awakened. There were people from all over the world, but the ones who’d woken up were the Canadians.
I’ve been trying to figure out what happened. Everyone is. Here’s my take. The world is often presented to us as a place that is rapidly deteriorating. We hear about wars, earthquakes, economic meltdowns, political failures, and countless other challenges deserving of our utmost attention. But there’s more to life than this. There’s more to our country that this. We have, for a long time, identified ourselves in opposition to the United States. We were not them. The problem with this is that until recently most of the world liked the U.S. People wanted to resemble the people we felt we were intangibly different from. This is, I think, behind a good percentage of so-called Canadian humility. It’s hard to rail against something most people admire.
In the past decade, however, as America’s stock as a country worth emulating has dwindled, we’ve been left with a void. We could continue to define ourselves as not Americans, but that seemed lacking. But without noticing, we’ve changed. We’re a country that knew the war in Iraq was a sham, that has fought bravely in Afghanistan, that has managed not to fall into the short-sighted economic policies that have brought many great powers to their knees, and who after six years of minority-government squabbling has had to look closely at itself and ask what precisely the point of Canada is anyway.
We are one of the 12 most powerful countries on earth. We have no imperial ambitions whatsoever. We basically like each other, even though there are a lot of different types of us and we often disagree. We want to look after the sick, poor and oppressed. We want the best, and to be our best, but are not greedy. We work hard. Sometimes we win, sometimes we lose. We’re a part of the world, and an important part. Life here is pretty great.
We knew, on some level, what we now were. What we hadn’t had was an opportunity to display this new sense of ourselves. The Olympics gave us this moment. What took place on the streets of Vancouver was a celebration of a Canada we’ve only recently realized existed.
On the Saturday marking the middle of the Games, I took my five-year-old daughter to see the cauldron and walk through the streets. An enormous television screen was projected on the side of the Sears building, and we stopped in front of it to eat a couple of hot dogs. The day before, skeleton gold medallist Jon Montgomery had been given a pitcher of beer by a stranger, which he enthusiastically accepted, as he entered Whistler Village to do a television interview. He wouldn’t start the interview until the crowd stopped singing the anthem, and then we got to meet his whole family; heard his father, a retired principal, praise him for having worked hard and finished what he started, heard his mother tell of how she went with him to get a tattoo when he graduated from high school. If you haven’t seen this, do.
Downtown, when the giant TV began to show his medal ceremony, the entire crowd stopped. Everyone, and again I mean everyone, stood and sang O Canada, and I saw more than one person cry. Others smiled so wide their faces must have hurt. Some cheered until their voices gave way and they had to buy horns and cowbells.
Skeleton is not hockey. Not one person in that crowd had anything emotional or vicarious riding on the outcome of that event. We weren’t happy simply because he won, we were happy because we saw ourselves in someone who had won.
And this wasn’t just happening in Vancouver—it had spread. I flew on a WestJet flight to Toronto while the women’s team played for gold. The TV on the back of every single seat was tuned to the game, and the whole plane erupted every time Canada scored.
In a bar I watched Joannie Rochette skate her way to bronze, and I saw tears stream down the face of a businessman, and no one else at his alpha-male table said a word about it. Is it because these guys care about women’s figure skating? Or is it because many of us have lost our mothers, and all of us eventually will?
I have no doubt in my mind that the bill for these Games is going to be enormous, and that paying it is going to hurt. I still believe that the IOC is more about Coke, Visa and McDonald’s than it is about athletics. I think that the Games are probably going to get more credit than they deserve for being a turning point in Canadian history as opposed to what they are, which is a manifestation of a turn already made. It was great to win 14 gold medals, and our beloved hockey team’s overtime win was sweet indeed, but that’s not what I’ll remember most about these Games.
A woman I know immigrated to Canada from England in 1998. She told me that while she’d become a citizen a few years ago, had sung the anthem and taken the oath, she hadn’t felt like she was really a Canadian until these past two weeks. I’ve lived here all my life, and after walking the streets of Vancouver the last two weeks, I feel the same way.
Steven Galloway, 34, is the author of three novels, most notably The Cellist of Sarajevo (2008), a bestseller and Giller prize nominee.