Why did Gretzky play role in ceremonies – he hasn’t lived here for 20 years
The Olympics are supposed to be uplifting. So far, the Vancouver Olympics are anything but.
The problem starts at the very top: the Own the Podium initiative, that federally sponsored program that aims to overcompensate for the supposed ignominy of Canada’s modest collection of medals at past Olympics by making this country the No. 1 nation in terms of medals won. That’s right, No. 1. Arrogance, not the Olympic spirit, is what inspires Own the Podium.
Yes, let’s not forget the Olympic spirit. It’s that corny but terrific idea that, in the words of Pierre de Coubertin, “The important thing is not to win but to take part.” That idea has become unfashionable in recent decades, but the organizers of these Games have consigned it to oblivion.
The symptoms of the new approach surfaced well before the start of these Games. As early as last September the New York Times reported that Canadian officials were going all out to exploit their home-field advantage for these Games. They were giving U.S. athletes, unlike their Canadian counterparts, minimal opportunities to become familiar with the luge track, speedskating oval and ski hill – the peculiarities of which can can greatly affect performance. The head of USA Luge understandably complained of “poor sportsmanship.”
Certainly little sportsmanship was on display Sunday when the Canadian women’s hockey team piled it on 18-0 against Slovakia. It was embarrassing. Pure humiliation. Never mind that the Olympic Charter says the Games should set a “good example” for upcoming generations.
Arrogance implies insensitivity, and you could see a lot of that at the opening ceremony. Although the organizers bent over backward to give an appropriate place to Canada’s native people, their blind spot in regard to French Canada was staggeringly disrespectful. You’d almost think a sovereignist mole had staged the whole ceremony to stoke Quebec’s resentment.
But it’s not just the organizers’ hubris that’s dispiriting. It’s also their clumsiness in staging the opening ceremony.
To be sure, the soirée included some gems – the snowboarder who sailed through the middle “O” of the Olympics’ five-ring logo, the orcas, the giant illuminated bear, and k.d. lang’s Hallelujah. The dedication of the entire soirée to the memory of the Georgian luger was also right.
But the show as a whole lasted way too long – the Mountie flag-carriers’ slow-mo march, the youth floating over wheatfields, skiers and snowboarders yo-yoing up and down a mountain. Pure tedium. Almost every act could have been shortened by a third or half.
And then there was the lighting of the Olympic cauldron. Let’s not dwell on the failure of an ice pole to rise: We all know about technology’s whims. But it’s the organizer’s considered choice of Wayne Gretzky as the final torch-bearer that’s more disappointing. He hasn’t been a resident of Canada for decades. And, if his expression was any indication, he didn’t seem too honoured
Lighting the cauldron is a symbolic role. It should belong to a person with some relationship to the Olympic movement’s core of amateurism, much compromised though it is. Gretzky, for all his athletic prowess, is not remotely connected to those roots. He personifies professional sport and – as the head of his own clothing line and huckster for soft drinks, beer, fast food, watches, cars and oil – he also incarnates the commercialism that surrounds sport. When the organizers of the Vancouver Games chose Gretzky, they in effect gave an official stamp of approval to this commercialism as it affects the Olympics.
Most of the things I’ve criticized – nationalistic swagger, use of the home-field advantage, poor sportsmanship, insensitivity and an embrace of commercialism – have occurred in earlier Olympics. But if there were medals for taking these traits to new levels, Vancouver would truly own the podium.