Commentary

'Big splash' not easy for Canadians

Updated: February 13, 2010, 10:25 AM ET
By Bonnie D. Ford | ESPN.com

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- The official slogan of these Olympics -- the English version, at least -- is "With Glowing Hearts," a phrase cribbed from the country's beautiful, soaring national anthem.

The full line is "With glowing hearts we see thee rise." The unsung, parenthetical part of that lyric is that Canadians tend to glow with pride internally and keep their mouths shut about it. Humility is as much a cultural emblem as the maple leaf and the long vowel.

[+] EnlargeWayne Gretzky
Richard Heathcote/Getty ImagesCanadian hockey legend Wayne Gretzky lit the cauldron during Friday's opening ceremonies.

Yet success at the top levels of international sport requires a strong collective ego and a certain self-centeredness -- the conviction that athletes really are cultural ambassadors worth the investment because their excellence somehow reflects where they came from. Success at the Olympics requires money and organization and willpower.

Reading and listening to Canadians in the lead-up to these Winter Games, it's apparent many have a degree of discomfort with just how assertive they should be about this whole thing. There's a desire to win, but not at any cost; there is a desire to be patriotic, but not jingoistic. To succumb to those temptations would blur the distinction Canadians hold so dear between them and their big, obstreperous neighbors to the south.

The day before the opening ceremonies, unabashedly conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper urged Canadians to wave their flags "at our embassies and our aid bases, our outposts and our vessels, our stadiums and our venues, even our homes." Yet in the same breath, he half-apologized. "We will ask the world to forgive us this uncharacteristic outburst of patriotism, of our pride, to be part of a country that is strong, confident and tall among the nations," he said.

That's a very different game face from the one an athlete has to wear into Olympic competition, where the colors of your national uniform are supposed to impart special powers of inspiration. There's no room for ambivalence when you've trained your entire life for a bobsled run or a dash around a speedskating oval that can be measured in seconds.

Canada did not win a gold medal in the two previous Olympics held here, the Montreal Summer Games of 1976 and the Calgary Winter Games of 1988. Determined to change the trend in Vancouver, the country threw discretion and modesty to the wind, assembled sports, government and corporate entities and announced an initiative called "Own the Podium."

There is a very good chance a Canadian gold rush will begin Saturday, but not necessarily because of that brash declaration. Jennifer Heil, the defending gold medalist in women's moguls, is a favorite to repeat in that event. But simply putting the country's intentions on the record so publicly ratchets up the stakes for Canada. If "Own the Podium" generates champions, it will pave the way for more targeted funding and athletic infrastructure. If it fails to annex any territory on the medals stand, there will be an accounting, and someone will be held accountable.

Either way, once the genie of expectations is released from the bottle, it's hard to put back in. As that most American of free spirits, Bode Miller, pointed out after a good training run the other day, "It's a ridiculous idea to 'come in under the radar.' At the Olympics, everyone is under the radar."

Canada definitely feels that scrutiny off the field of play, as well. Friday night's opening ceremonies aimed to do the impossible: Unite a vast, bilingual country mainly populated by immigrants and give the rest of the world a three-hour seminar on Canadian identity. "People think we're you," Vancouver organizing committee chief John Furlong explained in a mild tone of voice when an American reporter asked exactly what that might be.

Predictably, that ambitious agenda resulted in a gala that was somewhat of a hodgepodge, with some stirring moments and others that were tone-deaf. As the United States knows only too well, it's hard to give a proper nod to everyone in a multicultural society. The most resonant voices heard during the evening's entertainment were those of icons already familiar to us, like Donald Sutherland and Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell and k.d. lang. It's probably not a bad thing to be reminded that being Canadian has informed their creative styles.

But honestly, aren't the highlights of any opening ceremonies the perennial rituals like the parade of athletes and the torch relay that transcend nationality? Unfortunately, in the modern Olympic movement, it's not enough simply to be a good host and back your athletes to the hilt. Canada wanted to showcase itself to a worldwide television audience; it wanted to own the night and increase its name recognition.

Unforeseen circumstances intruded that made it difficult to control the occasion, much as they often do in sporting events. When Friday dawned, Canadian organizers thought their worst problem was the warm, wet weather that has plagued their venues. Then a 21-year-old luge athlete from the Republic of Georgia was killed in a horrific training accident that cast a pall of sadness over the proceedings.

A day that promised to be full of staged pageantry instead turned out to be painfully real and unchoreographed, right down to the ad-libbing that had to be done when the torch relay was stopped in its tracks by protestors in downtown Vancouver on Friday morning and when one "leg" of the elaborate hydraulic torch in BC Place did not rise out of the floor as it was supposed to. The long cross-country journey of the torch actually didn't end there, but oddly and somewhat charmingly in the bed of a pickup truck bearing national hero Wayne Gretzky to a second, outdoor cauldron. Nothing grandiose about that. Talk about coming back to earth.

It's often said that the one exception to Canada's congenital modesty is its most famous export, hockey. And perhaps the best thing Canada can do for the next two weeks as host and participant of this Olympics is conduct itself the way it does so naturally inside the boards: aggressively and with confidence, shaking hands afterward. There's no need to send any other, more sweeping message or to try too hard to drive home a point. The Olympic Games won't be defined by any preplanned storyline, whether it's athletic, political or commercial.

The glow will come from within.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.

Bonnie D. Ford is a senior writer for ESPN.com.