Olympics: the best of time and the worst of times

OUT ON A LIMB: I can remember the lean years of counting medals on one hand

I’ve always been a big fan of the Olympics.

The first games that I really remember following closely was the 1976 Olympics in Montreal when I was in high school.

I was explaining to my son the other day that it’s different watching the Olympics now than it was when I was younger. Nowadays, Canada’s a powerhouse in the winter Olympics. That’s a big change for an old sports fan like myself. I can remember the lean years of counting medals on one hand. We got a silver medal – a silver medal! – in the Montreal Olympics and we didn’t get any gold in our first winter Olympics on Canadian soil in Calgary in 1988.

But despite the lack of results, I’ve always enjoyed the games for the personal stories of triumph and tragedy.

Sometimes, the accomplishment of someone just happy to finish is as great as a gold medalist. Occasionally, a Canadian in the old days would stand out from the pack because he or she was a winner. Most of the time we had to be content with the heartfelt story of personal accomplishment. However, I have to say, I do prefer being on the winning side of the ledger.

Of course, it always raises the question of what’s such a big deal? Why do I care so much and why does society spend so much on athletes and extravagant sports festivals? Well, because it seems to matter to us and society buys into because there are those who make money at it.

But is success in an athletic competition any indicator of how developed a society we are? Are we a better place to live because our national hockey team is the best in the world? Conversely, are we any poorer a place to raise children because our national men’s soccer team is 113th in the world?

The answer is, of course, no. It means nothing. Canada is no less a civilized place now that our team finishes fourth overall in medal success at the Winter Olympics than it was when we were lucky to get four medals. Some might even say we’re less tolerable now that we’re winners. Athletics can generate both the highest and lowest behaviors.

Just look at Vancouver. In 2010, the streets of B.C.’s biggest city were filled with joyous, happy, fun-loving crowds enjoying themselves safely and good naturedly. A year later, those same streets were trashed by mobs of unruly, disgraceful drunks and thieves brought together by a hockey tournament.

You can brush off sports as ridiculous or juvenile or you can glorify them as exemplifying the highest of human traits. What you can’t do is totally dismiss them. They mean a lot to a lot of people and they have an impact. A journalism instructor once explained to a dismissive classmate of mine, “Sports is news!”

Spend $51 billion on a tournament and tell me that’s not news. Pay a kid out of Ontario millions of dollars to chase a rubber plug and tell me that’s not news.

Sometimes the sheer drama of it all is captivating and the Olympics concentrates it all into one two-week period and millions of us are mesmerized. Rightly or wrongly.

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