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When a celebration is just a celebration

2/27/2010

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Every night, I walk from the main press center on Vancouver's beautiful waterfront to my hotel and try my best to avoid being buffeted by reeling, drunken mobs of young people. My hotel happens to be on Granville Street, which I understand is Party Central on any given weekend, but the Olympic crowds have been on a different scale, bigger and louder and more inebriated and durable enough to keep it going until 3 or 4 in the morning on school nights, too.

I've seen only one fistfight break out in front of me during this two-week tailgate, but trust me, I've seen plenty: Guys unzipping their pants any old place to pee, guys holding their girlfriends' hair off their shoulders so they have an unimpeded means to vomit, young people of both genders propositioning each other with all the affection and subtlety of a slap shot. The real consequences of these kinds of gatherings usually arrive later on, when some percentage of these revelers get behind the wheel of a car, or get into a car with someone who shouldn't be driving, or stumble in front of a moving car, or have unprotected sex, or get date-raped.

This is a debauch wrapped in brand-name Canada apparel purchased at the Olympic Superstore -- where queuing up is a sport in and of itself -- and the attempts to explain it away as nouveau patriotism are lame. If this is a legitimate way to express national pride, then Parliament should replace the maple leaf on the flag with a keg and be done with it.

Which makes the double standard and hypocrisy coloring Thursday's brew-ha-ha around the Canadian women's hockey team even more blatant.

As you may have heard or read, the Canadians shut out the United States 2-0 on Thursday to earn a third straight gold medal in their national pastime. This was a two-nation tournament, but that's not the home team's fault. The Canadians won the game they came to win and it was the last game for a number of veteran players.

An hour after the interminable medal and flower ceremony -- can someone talk the protocol people into handing them both out at once? -- some of the Canadians came back onto the ice with beer and champagne and cigars. They posed for photos for each other and were photographed themselves by the world's biggest photo agencies. The media and the cleaning crew were pretty much the only spectators to the impromptu celebration, since the fans had long since poured outside to do their drinking where it belongs, in the streets.

A reporter or reporters contacted the International Olympic Committee for comment, and we got pretty much what you would expect at an event where most of the female athletes are officially referred to as "ladies," as if this were charm school instead of a venue where limbs are broken and physical limits tested.

Initially, one IOC official suggested the hockey players should have limited their revelry to the "changing room" and said the episode would be "investigated." Friday morning, IOC spokesman Mark Adams either contradicted or clarified that, saying the organization was drafting a letter to the team asking questions about the incident. Adams denied the IOC was aiming any special scrutiny at the players, saying the media is the only entity putting the team under a microscope.

It doesn't appear any kind of reprimand is being considered, partly because Hockey Canada issued a quick apology. Friday, Canadian Olympic Committee president Michael Chambers called the hijinks "an error in judgment" but also allowed how he enjoyed a beer after his hockey wins, which came on a much lower level.

I'll go out on a limb and say no one would be talking about decorum if the Canadian men had enjoyed a cold beverage and a stogie at center ice in similar circumstances. The photo would run above the fold in every newspaper in this country and be reissued as a souvenir poster.

The only possible hook for this "story" -- aside from flat-out sexism and the possible violation of an anti-smoking ordinance -- is that Marie-Philip Poulin, the player who scored both of Canada's goals, is still 18 and the drinking age in the province of British Columbia is 19. Canadian women's captain Hayley Wickenheiser quietly voiced her irritation at a prescheduled press availability Friday.

"We had our victory, we deserved to win and celebrate it, and I think we handled ourselves fine," Wickenheiser said. "If you watch any celebration in hockey history, the NHL or the Stanley Cup, there's champagne in the dress[ing] room and there's 18-year-olds on teams. I don't know why this is such a big deal or any different from any other celebration, and it was all done in good taste."

Wickenheiser said some players returned to the ice on a whim after celebrating privately for more than an hour with guests including Prime Minister Stephen Harper and British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell.

"The girls wanted to take a few pictures on the ice thinking the rink would be empty," Wickenheiser said. "Somebody took a picture, and of course, it's our youngest player involved.

"I am not ashamed or embarrassed at all. It's really unfortunate. We just won an Olympic gold medal in our own country and today we're having to defend how we celebrated our Olympic gold medal. Nobody got hurt."

Right -- in contrast to the luge track at Whistler, for example. Get a grip, folks.

Wickenheiser's words count more than most. She was selected to represent all athletes by reciting the Olympic oath at the opening ceremonies before a worldwide audience. That pledge, by the way, includes references to sportsmanship and competing drug-free. It doesn't mention anything about refraining from unladylike behavior.

People are already talking about how dicey it could get downtown if the Canadian men win the gold medal Sunday. I wish someone would apply a code of conduct to the sodden mobs that have clogged the streets here; I'd be less worried about how I'm going to get home after the closing ceremonies.

Yet while the massive, excessive outdoor carousing passes for Olympic atmosphere, female hockey players intoxicated on nothing stronger than adrenaline and joy are being told they should have restrained themselves. Every once in a while, it becomes clear that baby, we haven't come very far after all.

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