Monday, February 24, 2014

Post-Olympics Musings

Well, the Games of Sochi 2014 have come to an end, and I thought I would put down some of my thoughts.

I always experience a rush of emotions as the Games close; there is pride for my country and how my athletes have fared. There is pride for ALL countries and how they came together for 17 days in a non-political spotlight. And there are blues when the Flame is extinguished and the party comes to an end.

For 2 weeks every 2 years, I am immersed in Olympics Fever. I love the events, and the achievements, but mostly I love that there is a constant buzz in the air of "anything can happen" feelings. The stories behind the athletes, the stories behind the events and how they unfolded, those are always compelling, poignant, some make us truly renew our faith in humanity (think Justin Wadsworth or Gilmore Junio). These Games were no different than any other, in that there was true competition, the usual surprises, and the heart-stopping drama culminating in Moments of exhilaration (Canadian Women's Hockey, anyone?). And the crowning glory of reclaiming our spot on the podium in Men's hockey (I wouldn't be the fan I am if I didn't mention that!), with an entire country crowded bars and pubs, friends' or family homes, or just waking up to watch in pajamas and cheer on our guys in a 7:00 a.m. puck drop.

But the Games were shrouded in controversy this year. It began with celebrities like George Takei and Stephen Fry, who called for the Games to be relocated to Vancouver (illogical if not misguided - those decisions are made years in advance in order to prepare a city for the invasion of millions). Their call came in light of President Putin's archaic and homophobic laws. Now, I don't agree at all with the way in which Putin's government has approached the issues, nor do I agree with the brutality that has ensued. Nor do I believe those attitudes help contribute to a true Olympic Spirit.

But in its infinite wisdom, the IOC awarded the Games to Sochi 7 years ago. The laws were not in place then, but the pendulum had swung, preparations were underway, funding was in place, peoples' lives were about to become chaotic, and one doesn't just pull the plug on that.

When celebrities take on a cause, their followers herald the troops. And boycotting the Games became a call to arms.

I disputed vehemently on many a social media venue. I would not boycott, because in the end the Game are about the athletes. And those young people have trained - most of them for their entire lives - to compete, no matter where the arenas were situated. I felt that because they are the focus of the Games (and should be), and because it is ludicrous to punish them for laws that they were not responsible for, nor supportive of (in all probability), it dishonored those young hopefuls to boycott their shining moments.

I wasn't just talking about our athletes either. Yes, I feel deep Canadian pride for my country's delegation, but the names I wanted to hear called on the podium - USA's Jason Brown (video here) from the USA, for example, whose pre-Olympics performances catapulted him into figure skating greatness even before the Games began (and who ended up with a bronze medal). Would Russia's magnificent Evgeni Plushenko get a third Gold? (He withdrew from competition, retiring on the spot after a fall rendered him unable to compete and injuring his back to the point of surgery needed)

It's about all the athletes. The delegations-of-one from countries like Mexico, Kyrgyzstan and the Philippines (list of one-athlete delegations here). The countries making Olympic debuts like Dominica, and East Timor (seven nations made Winter Games debuts) and the imminent retirements from their sports, as with our own Hailey Wickenheiser and Finland's Teemu Selanne - what kind of Games would these people all experience?

Boycotting would deprive me of the joy I get from those Moments. And the enjoyment of the events I follow, introduction to events I do not, and revisiting events I watch every 4 years.  Boycotting deprives the sports fans of their 17-day bonanza.

I believe it was mostly non-sports fans who called for the shunning of these Games. Or those who are sports fans but don't truly get the Spirit of the Olympics and the reasons for which these Games take place. 

There were those who boycotted based on the government. I surmised that, even with my distaste of the American government in power now, I would never boycott watching the Games if they were held in the USA. My focus is solely on the humanity and athletics of the Olympics.

Those activists who came out against the Games were predicting disaster. Gay athletes and their families would be thrown in jail (I encountered someone who did accuse the government of doing just that, when in fact the story she had read was not about athletes, but about some rowdy protesters, and that is within the right of any police force to contain). Gay athletes would not be allowed to compete. Gay athletes would be edged out of medaling.

None of that happened. Nor did I ever believe it would. Not because Putin would turn a blind eye, but because he would have been committing political suicide had anything like that happened on his watch.

I had confidence the Games would come off as planned.

And not only did they, but Opening and Closing Ceremonies were practically perfect (the one malfunctioning snowflake-ring was a source of ridicule and "I-told-you-so" reports for days after, with many of us pointing out that Vancouver's Openings had their own malfunction - with the lighting of the Flame, no less!). And in fact, the Sochi organizers, to their credit and with their delightful sense of self-deprecating humor, deliberately recreated the malfunctioning snowflake in the Closing Ceremonies. Russians? Laughing at themselves? Say it isn't so!

The Ceremonies were filled with professionalism, polished technology and staging, exquisite design (the floor of Fisht Stadium [gallery of photos here] was spectacular as it took on an everchanging landscape of thematic design and photography), and overwhelming moments of performances. 

The IOC President, Thomas Bach, made an impassioned speech in the Opening Ceremonies (which was surprisingly edited by NBC - allegedly for time constraints; the full text is in the link provided) that should have served to bring those die-hard boycotters back to the Games. The line I took away from it resonates (italics mine): 

I say to the political leaders of the world - thank you for supporting your athletes. They are the best ambassadors of your country. Please respect their Olympic Message of goodwill, of tolerance, of excellence and of peace. Have the courage to address your disagreements in a peaceful, direct political dialogue and not on the backs of the athletes.

 And yet, there were those who might have watched without admitting they did, might have watched while admitting they did, or might have remained steadfast in their ideologies and stayed away altogether. It must have been difficult for those who spoke out and followed through, however, as social media, print media and radio/television media were wallpapered with stories from Sochi.

My question to those who decided to boycott remains, how can you not feel pride in your country's best athletes who went to a new country, participated in a 2-week meet, and gave their all in order to medal, place, or merely show up to pad their experience for their next competitions? How can you not feel or show pride in the accomplishments and stories that emerged as the days went on, in the young people who represent the future of your country, who leaned not only on the support of friends, family, teammates, coaches and trainers, but on the support of their country sending them off to Russia to fulfill their dreams? And how can you not feel the patriotism oozing from every corner of your city as flags fly high to honor the returning athletes and crowds overflow airports to greet these moral, spiritual and athletic giants in their first steps on home ground?

Four years ago, I found myself at the airport on the same day Joannie Rochette returned to Montreal. Her emotional performance was underscored by the devastating loss of her mother just days earlier, in Vancouver, but she prevailed and won bronze. I was drawn in by the support for her, and waited in an unending bubble of time until she (along with our other athletes) stepped out of the door to the media scrum and the throngs of people there to welcome her home.

Joannie's strength, athletic and spiritual, inspired this year's athletes. When you read a story like this, how can you turn your back on those hopefuls for an utterly irrelevant Cause not their fault or within their control to change?

I suppose I cannot understand those who were so loud against Putin but remained silent when China hosted the 2008 Summer Games.

I suppose I cannot understand those who deem everything to be politicized, thus refusing to see a separation of Games spirit and political dissent.

I suppose I cannot understand those who take a stand against something by speaking out against it but taking no action to instill change.

But I would not boycott these Games, and I am all the richer for it. I stand proud as a Canadian whose athletes kicked ice, overcame broken bones to compete and medal (Mark McMorris, anyone?  Meaghan Mikkelson?), and whose country placed a respectable 3rd in overall medal wins.

I stand proud as my nation and my hockey nation celebrates 2 back-to-back Gold medals in men's and women's hockey (the women taking their 4th Gold in as many Games). I stand proud as my nation celebrates men's and women's Curling gold (with an unprecedent undefeated women's team in all 11 games). Yes, I stood proudly in my bedroom, in pajamas, singing Oh Canada as the men's hockey team celebrated their Gold and a country erupted in cheers.

I cheered loudly in my car as the women tied a game that was all but lost, and in my kitchen as their OT winner broke the sound barrier all across Canada.

And I feel richer for having followed the hockey games with my kids, discussing the results, the Moments, the upcoming events, and the predictions for that Final Showdown.

I feel richer for having witnessed a perfect Olympics.

And I congratulate Russia for their Games. Because despite their politics, their austerity and their intolerance, they delivered on the promise they made 7 years ago. Medalists and non-medalists alike were all winners, because of Russia's beautiful job on delivering a breathtaking 17-day Games.

As are those of us who are Olympics Enthusiasts.

See you in Rio '16!

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Hockey Love and the Olympics

Let me preface this with my unequivocal support for, belief in, and confidence in my teams. Whether it's the Montreal Canadiens, or Team(s) Canada, I always have faith we will prevail.

That being said...

Today's game of hockey, played between two sworn rivals - the American and the Canadian women's teams - was one for which I had absolute unshakeable confidence. Canada had dominated the USA last match, and were set to repeat not only that power, but another gold-medal winning performance.

The game began, and there I was - in my car as my son was in his 1-hour class (I drive him in and find a parking spot for the hour or less). I was listening to the game, watching on my iPad app, and increasingly dismayed at how it was unfolded. We weren't scoring. We were getting chances, but we were not scoring. Nor, for that matter, were the Americans. So with the first period down, both teams were scoreless.

USA scored in the 2nd. I felt rising nerves but quelled them, knowing our girls could come back to tie that. But it didn't happen.

By the third period, when the USA got their 2nd goal, I was positively morose. Did I still believe in a comeback? Yes. But as the game clock counted down precious minutes, it was becoming less and less a possibility.

By this time, the kid was out of class, and we were on the road. Listening on radio, we were both on edge. But with 3-1/2 minutes on the clock, Canada scored a goal. Suddenly, it was a new game. Still, the clock was moving too quickly. When the USA almost scored an empty-netter, my heart about stopped. Hitting the goal post was way too close for my comfort!

With less than a minute to go, Marie-Philip Poulin tied the game, and I shouted, "UNBELIEVABLE!!!" (poor Josh - I yelled in his ear)

Driving down the 20, I had to believe other drivers were listening as well. And if they weren't, they knew something was happening in my car - my fists were pumped, my smile was ear-to-ear, I was probably emanating enough adrenaline for everyone to feel the electricity!

As the game was in intermission, we stopped at Dairy Queen. I'd promised my son an ice cream cone, and so, I watched on my iPhone as I was served. Sharing the "story" so far with the girl behind the counter, we shared a "Go Canada!" and I left.

We drove home, OT had begun, and I watched at red lights, listening in between. When we got home, the Americans were just about to receive a penalty - something the commentators believed should have been a penalty shot for interference. I walked into the house, eyes glued to my phone as the officials discussed the penalty with various coaches. By this time, Josh had turned on the television in the kitchen.

I walked in, put my phone down, and it was at that moment Marie-Philip Poulin (yes, again!) scored the overtime winner. Talk about timing!

The emotions that followed were a jumble. DEEP pride and awe in the women of Canada, who have that Never-Give-Up spirit, and showed it today. Heartbreaking sadness (to the point of tears of sympathy) for the Americans who, for all intents and purposes, should have won this game. Kudos to them. I have no smugness or gloating in my heart - because they sure did push us to our limits, and beyond. I've seen some mean-spirited gloating. I won't engage.

Sang the Anthem in my kitchen, with tears in my eyes. And celebrating our country's victory on social media, which is the next best thing to being in a bar or pub and shouting with the crowd.

Now, tomorrow. Our men's hockey teams meet as well. And it isn't for the Gold, as it was in Vancouver. It is to see who advances. Do...or die. (It only feels like a Gold-Medal game)

And though, on paper, our guys are deep in talent, strong and successful on their respective teams, these Games have been a challenge for them. They have not scored as many goals as their opponents tomorrow have throughout the Olympics. And considering how confident I have been in their ability to beat Norway, Finland, and Austria? Those three games (okay, two out of three - Austria was a cakewalk) were nowhere near the blowouts they were predicted to have been.

Facing Latvia in the quarterfinals, we were given more than a run for our money. It was not predicted to have been so. It was a nail-biter in every way - and no, I didn't believe we would lose, but there was a nagging "what if we don't move on?" in my stomach. I watched the last period on my feet, pacing, experiencing physical discomfort from the stress. Let's face it - when the opposing goalie, a relative unknown, has faced 57 shots in a game, and we only have 2 goals on the board, you know you're up against a tough team.

Tomorrow will be a huge test. The Americans are strong. P.K. Subban is not being put into the line-up (no, this isn't going to turn into a piece about P.K. - I could. But I won't). And we are facing a successful team.


We have Carey Price who has only let in one goal in each of the 3 games he has been in nets. We have a strong defensive core as well. If we can hold them off, and just score one goal more than they do? We can move onto the Gold Medal game. Which, I believe, we can win.

This has been the first Olympics in which I am totally into hockey. In 2010, I was a practically-new hockey mom, understanding some of the game, but nowhere near as rabid a fan as I was to become when the Habs went deep into playoffs that summer. Now, I know more. I feel it more profoundly. I take it harder. And I follow every  minute.

I'm not sure I did myself any favors, becoming so intensely fanatic.

But - to paraphrase a famous line from a famous movie -  hockey, I can't quit ya.

Go Canada GO!!!!!